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Teaching Kids a Sense of Responsibility

— Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

Being responsible means that we do the right thing even when no one is looking. We do the right thing because it is right and not because we will get credit or praise for doing it.
—West Virginia University Extension Service, “Character Counts!—Responsibility”

“It’s not my job.” Ever heard that?

Too often, kids and parents tangle over who’s responsible for what chore around the house. But experts say to look beyond the individual chore at hand. That’s because behind every chore is a primary lesson of life: that taking responsibility means contributing to something larger than yourself and respecting yourself for the contribution.

Within our families, we develop a sense of ourselves as unique persons with unique contributions to make to the world. The family teaches a child how to be part of the larger world—a classmate at school, a friend in the neighborhood, an employee later in life. A child first learns to “do his part” by taking responsibility for his own chores within the family.

Whether large, like bringing in an income, or small, like dusting a tabletop, all tasks help the family to function. When one person doesn’t do her job, the process can break down. For example, a family may divide up the specific tasks required to clean, fold, and put away laundry and assign each task—from taking the basket to the laundry room to matching the socks—to a family member.

But if one child doesn’t take the empty clothes basket back upstairs, the rest of the family can’t put their dirty clothes in it. If someone else doesn’t bring the basket down to the laundry room, mom can’t wash and dry the dirty laundry. Then, dad can’t fold it, and everyone will be upset because they won’t have clean clothes to wear.

When teaching responsibility, remember that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And a functioning family is just that—greater when each member is responsible and contributes to the whole family. When all of the parts are contributing to the smooth functioning of the whole, laundry gets put away, food gets prepared, and burned-out light bulbs get replaced.

And more important, each time your child completes a task, another small building block of his character is put into place.

Consistent responsibilities help your child learn to be accountable, show self-restraint, and pursue excellence.1

More Than Just Taking Out the Trash

Taking responsibility is more than just scrubbing the floor or watering the plants—it’s learning about character and contributing to the family.

After self-care—such as teeth-brushing, dressing, and eating healthy—responsibility extends outward to the family. From fixing meals to washing laundry to shopping for household goods to cleaning shared spaces, everyday tasks are a good way to begin teaching a child about her responsibilities within the family.

Ideally, the process begins early enough so that the child still delights in helping and wants to do things together. The age and maturity level of each family member will help determine the tasks he can handle. A 6-year-old may not be able to mop the kitchen floor, but may be able to dry the silverware and put it into a drawer.

Take the opportunity to call a family meeting and talk broadly about the importance of responsibility in the world. Ask family members questions about what they think their responsibilities are for themselves and the family. Make sure you start this process early, even with preschoolers or kindergarteners. It’s never too early to instill a sense of responsibility.

Talk about times when you were impressed by the way a child or teenager took responsibility for something. Discuss your feelings about a time when someone showed irresponsible behavior and why you think the action, not the person, set a bad example.

As your child matures, you may want to talk about larger ideas of character and goodness in people—traits like trustworthiness, respect, fairness, caring, citizenship, honesty, courage, diligence, and integrity.2

Much of the time, teaching household responsibility is not about telling a child what she should do. It’s about asking her what she would be willing to do and telling her why that willingness is vital to her well-being and the smooth running of the household.

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