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PARENTALK: How To Inculcate Responsibility In Children

PARENTALK: How To Inculcate Responsibility In Children

We were at a beautiful beach in Udupi a few months ago when my child saw someone throwing an empty water bottle. He called out to the person in anger and said, “Uncle, the bin is right there”. The man ignored and my child was disappointed. “He is a grownup. Does he not know he needs to throw garbage in the bin”, he asked.

The world is full of irresponsible adults that shrug off their responsibilities as citizens and behave all entitled. This often makes us wonder what we should do to raise a responsible generation that makes tomorrow a better time to live. It is important to equip children in a way that they make responsible choices and also own up if they falter. But how do we achieve it? Is there a particular age for children to be responsible? 

Well, you need to sow the seeds of responsibility early. Children need to know in age-appropriate ways they are responsible for their things, actions, the mess they make, etc. However, it is important to not make it seem like a burden. It needs to be joyful for the child and you need to handhold them with the learning. Do not think that it is too early for them to tidy up their toys or put their plates in the sink. Apart from inculcating responsibility, these age-appropriate tasks make them confident and build their self-esteem. Children enjoy all your attention and love, but they also want to feel powerful and in control of their life. Responsibilities help them understand their value and how their positive contribution matters.

You cannot teach or preach responsibility. Here are some ways to help them become responsible:

  • Model cleaning up as a part of routine and fun: Raising children who clean up after themselves is easy. Do not project it as a tough or unpleasant task. Help them clean up every day until they do it instinctively. Sing songs as you put away the toys or tidy up the table after eating. This will help them associate cleaning with fun. If you are happy about it, the child will learn faster. If they spill water or mess up the toys, instead of scolding or cleaning with an irked expression, hand them a sponge and make it feel like another fun activity. Give them a hand as they do it. They will clean up as long as they don’t feel judged. Instead of ordering, approach it positively. Thank them once they do it and let them know that the space looks beautiful because they were responsible.
  • Acknowledge positive behaviors: Some behaviors that may seem like common sense are a big deal for children. Let them know that you notice little things and appreciate them. This will help them to recognize positive behaviors and grow them. It could be as simple as throwing a wrapper in the dustbin or a self-care behavior like washing the mouth after each meal or remembering to keep the shoes in the rack. Well-behaved children do not develop their thoughtfulness overnight. It is a process of continuous growth.
  • Assign them age-appropriate responsibilities: If you do everything around the house, it will seem like it is the parents’ job to do it all and they need not contribute. Let them know that the house belongs to everyone and if just one person does everything they will soon feel burnt out. Assign them age-appropriate tasks like laying the table, folding clothes, watering the plants, or helping with the family pet. Do not assign rewards or payments for regular chores, but appreciate how the house runs smoothly because they do these little tasks. Also, remember not to order or threaten.
  • Do not rush them or tell them they weren’t good enough: A 4-year-old will not fold the napkins or clean the table as perfectly as you. It will also be more work for you when you involve them, but being patient is critical for them to learn. Let them discover the feeling of accomplishment as they do it. Your positive reactions will make them more interested in doing the chores next time and become better at them. It will also help you strengthen your bond with them.
  •  Help them recognize priorities: Ask them politely what is it that they’d need to do next. For instance, once they are ready for school, ask what is it that they should do next. It could be packing the backpack or keeping the lunchbox in; doing this exercise every day will help them internalize the routine and do it in the future without being prompted. If they suggest unimportant chores, let them know how that would mean that the important ones would suffer and the impact that would have. Working with them rather than ordering is the best way to make them intrinsically motivated.
  • Facilitate a routine and structure: Children thrive in routines. They help them with predictability and they feel more empowered when they know what to expect. Janet Lansbury quotes “In a life full of changes we cannot control, creating routines and rituals is one of the most respectful and empowering things we can do for our babies.” Routines help them learn these life skills through repetition and it soon becomes automated and they do it each day.
  •  Help them make it better when they hurt someone during their interactions rather than forcing them to apologize: It is important to teach children to take the responsibility for their words and actions. However, simply scolding them or making them apologize will not have any positive impact. They won’t mean the half-hearted apology. Listen to their feelings and ask what made them talk or behave in the way they did. Help them navigate through their emotions first and later discuss the other person’s feelings. Once they are in a better frame of mind, discuss how to repair things. It won’t always involve apologies, but offering hugs or doing something else to make the other person happy. This way, they will learn that the way they behave with others is important and if they misbehave, they must make repairs. But remember, if an interaction has left your child feeling wronged or hurt, acknowledge their feelings, make them feel better, and model the right behavior. 
  • Let them know of the costs of irresponsibility: We recently borrowed a book from the library. My elder child kept it carelessly, and the sibling tore it. I told him how it meant that no one else will enjoy that book and if all of us do so, the library won’t have any good books to borrow. I also told him about the fine we’d have to pay. I came up with a condition that I’d pay the fine, but he’d also have to donate a book to the library from his stash. He agreed and I see a change in the way he handles library books now. The donation wasn’t a punishment. I didn’t scold or force him, but just made him aware of the consequences.
  • Be available to help them navigate problems but do not bail them out: If your child didn’t complete their homework because they were playing, do not write that note to the teacher saying that they were sick. Or, if they broke a valuable at a neighbor’s house, do not rush to say sorry to the neighbor yourself. Let the child handle the problem, just be available for support. Tell them that it was their responsibility to complete the homework or to be careful and that you can help them make amends but not resolve the situation for them.
  • Model the right behavior: Do you clean up or your table is full of coffee mugs you drank from? Do you keep the clothes and accessories ready the night before or rush in the mornings looking for stuff?  Have you ever promised your child something only to take a u-turn later? Remember, your child is learning from you. Modeling the behavior you want them to inculcate is the best way to go about it.
  • Do not label them as irresponsible: Labeling hurts your child’s self-esteem and demotivates them from following the right approach. 
  • Show them the power of to-do lists or calendars: This may seem old-fashioned but works perfectly. Let them know how making a list of things they need to do will help them do everything in time. It will also save them the hassle of trying to remember everything. Show them your lists and help them come up with theirs. This is the best way to teach time management and responsibility.
  • Stay clear of blame games: It is easy to delegate the blame for things that go wrong to others and most of us do it unconsciously. Make a conscious effort to take responsibility for things that go wrong. If you were not in the wrong, accept the situation and assume the responsibility of making amends. If your child has done something wrong, focus on the solution rather than blaming them. Blaming will only make them more inclined to lie. Define the problem instead and find a solution together.

Helping them to be responsible is a constant process. Do not expect quick results and help them on the way. Let them make mistakes and learn from them.

Happy Parenting!


Smriti is a freelance content writer and an avid reader. She quit her 6 year-long IT career to embrace her love for writing. She writes content across genres and takes pride in her ability to research and carve magic with words. She passionately writes about parenting and is currently working on her book. When not writing or reading, she can be seen running behind any of her 2 kids or learning Deutsch.

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