How children learn responsibility

In a quote from Abigail Van Buren about responsibility she encouraged parents to put some responsibility on the shoulders of children. In today’s world, there are two somewhat opposing opinions about responsibility and children. One camp promotes the idea that children should be allowed to be children and the other camp suggests that they need to have responsibilities if they are going to stand on their own two feet as adults.

Unfortunately we often see big swings in the thoughts about parenting that shift from one extreme to the other. As with most thoughts, ideas, and practices, balance is critical so that neither extreme is placed on the child. I would agree that it is important to allow children to be children. They need time to play and learn about themselves.We see youngsters playing sports earlier and earlier while studies have shown that waiting and allowing fine motor skills to catch up to gross motor skills is the way to play at a higher level later in life.

More troubling is that in the world of childhood from fashion, cosmetics, and risky behaviors like drug and alcohol, sexual activity, trouble with the law has gone from a mid-teen issue to the 8-12-year-olds. Many of these children are seeing themselves as independent and as described by the Manhattan – Institute “isolated from family and neighborhood, shrugged at by parents, dominated by peers”. Even in my speaking with children, they may have very few chores or responsibilities within the family, saying Oh we have a cleaning person or I don’t have to do …. Someone does that for me.

The virtue of responsibility is known by every adult to be a part of everyday life. So how do we help our children to learn to be held accountable and allow them to have a childhood?  It is simply about how old the child is and where they are in their developmental stage. Giving a child a task to be responsible for does not need to be given as an authoritarian taskmaster.

Beginning at an early age showing a child how to do a task and then allowing them to do it to the best of their ability without insisting on perfection is a great start. It may be picking up the toys together, pulling the covers up on the bed. Later as they get older they might learn to match socks, unload the silverware, and soon they are able to sort the laundry and put dishes away. These are all ways for them to contribute to the family and feel needed.

Responsibility though is also about learning to keep their promises and commitments. We can teach them that getting to events or things they are participating in on time is showing responsibility. This they can learn by using language to guide them to that understanding. We may say to them, “When we get to your lessons on time, we are showing responsibility.” Later if you need to get them to move more quickly you may direct them by saying, “I need you to show responsibility and be ready to leave in 10 minutes.

Responsibility can be practiced as they learn about returning items that are borrowed and making sure they are in good condition when we return them. It may be a toy or a library book, but when we guide them with the word and the behavior they begin to understand what responsibility looks like.

As they get older we can begin to introduce the idea of prioritizing our tasks and putting the biggest and most important tasks first, even if it is more fun to do the other ones. Some children can have this virtue even overdeveloped and we may need to help them to use moderation and flexibility. However, rescuing our children from things that they are developmentally prepared for, just to give them an easier life is not helping them grow up to be contributing members of society. Keeping the balance though will allow them plenty of time for play which is equally important to their development.

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