Developing Responsibility in Kids
Have you ever found yourself frustrated with kids who aren’t taking responsibility?
- Schoolwork is not getting done.
- Chores are a struggle.
- There’s a lot of whining and flopping around about being “bored.”
- Self-care is a struggle (showers, hair brushing, basic hygiene require constant reminders)
- Toys are not being picked up or cared for
- Clothing is piled instead of folded and put away
- Piles of dishes are being left for parents.
First: ((HUG)) you are not alone. I don’t know one single parent who has not struggled with transferring responsibility to kids.
Second: It’s fixable.
The problem is universal
When a baby is born, she needs you to do EVERYTHING. So you do. But the end goal of raising kids is functional adulthood, the basic definition of which is: taking responsibility for all the things.
The path is painfully unique
How we get a kid from zero to juggling all of the adult balls is a journey and there isn’t one answer for all kids. Who they are, how they are, developmental challenges, unique gifts, inborn temperament, and natural bent all play roles in that journey.
There’s not a prescription that works for all kids.
There is, however an observable pattern in families moving kids successfully towards responsibility that we can all draw from and use as a roadmap.
There are tangible takeaways, things you can start doing right now, that will increase your child’s ability (and desire!) to take age appropriate responsibility for her own life.
You can do this. So can your kids. Here’s how:
We’ve all heard the old adage that “more is caught than taught,” right? Right. This is absolutely true. Probably the most important thing you can do to “teach” your kids to take responsibility is to make sure that you’re taking it yourself. You can’t preach to kids about doing chores in a timely manner and not be doing yours. You can’t lose your patience over their lack of diligence in their school work if you are modeling procrastination.
It’s easy to TALK a good game as parents. WALKING a good game is harder, and where the rubber meets the road.
Want to fix the responsibility gap in your kids? Start by taking a long hard look at what you’re modeling. If what you’re modeling is what you want them to develop, perfect, carry on. If not, start there. And start there out loud.
Starting there out loud means talking with your kids about where you still struggle and your own journey. If you struggle with housework, remote work, your health and fitness, nutrition, or showing up consistently in the areas you need to, then admit that to your kids and talk about your growth curve.
Kids don’t need perfect parents, they need honest, imperfect, growing alongside them parents.
It’s okay to say, “I’m not good at this either, let’s get better together.” That builds community in ways that top down management of kids, “You need to do this thing because YOU NEED TO DO THIS THING,” breeds resentment, because they know where you’re struggling, even if you don’t say so.
Talk with your kids about responsibility.
Tony used to say to our kids, “Being an adult means taking responsibility for yourself first, and then for as many things around you as you can.” That’s a good working definition.
Adulthood means taking responsibility.
For a teen who is chafing at the bit and wants to “be treated like an adult,” this is important information. As soon as a person takes responsibility for all of her own things, she is an adult. Go for it!
Talk about how everyone in a family is NEEDED and how we support each other by taking responsibility for our own things (self-care and our own stuff first, then expanding outward to the things we share in common).
Talk about how parents in a family take responsibility for making money, keeping a roof overhead, providing food and “stuff,” driving, planning, and orchestrating daily life.
Kids take responsibility for their own selves, their things, their spaces, their educations, and the life work that they are capable of on behalf of the family (dishes, bathroom cleaning, laundry, cooking, eventually more and more).
Show gratitude twice as often as you nitpick.
THANK your kids directly for the ways you see them taking responsibility. Thank them out loud and in front of others. Make sure they really know that they are valued for the ways they are taking responsibility and that you see growth. Nothing is more motivating than feeling appreciated!
Kids are not born knowing how to do stuff. Parents teach them. We can model taking responsibility for things. We can talk about it. But we also need to provide instructions and systems to support them during their growth phase.
There are lots of ways to do this and lots of programs and books on the market that provide systems that work for some families, but really, it’s quite simple. There are three steps:
During the teaching phase you’re actively instructing and working alongside a kid on whatever the thing is. Working WITH a child on a particular learning curve is almost always better than preaching AT a child about the task. Teach by showing, and doing together. Here’s how we organize our day for remote work/school, prioritize our day to get all of the things in, clean a toilet, make a grocery list, plan a trip to somewhere, organize a budget, fold the laundry.
Teaching takes time. Weeks, months, years sometimes, depending on the thing you’re working on. You can’t rush it. Don’t expect to show a kid once and have it over.
Supporting looks like two things: quality control, and scaffolding to help them get consistent.
This might be as simple as a bathroom inspection after they clean it. Or it might be a Friday meeting to go over their school work progress for the week (or an every evening meeting in the early days of learning to take responsibility for their own process). Or, it might look like a chart or spreadsheet that helps them know what to do when and how but that doesn’t involve you having to tell them to go do the thing.
Supporting a kid in taking responsibility is the (often very long) middle phase between them developing competency in a skill or task and them being able to self motivate and take full responsibility for its accomplishment in a timely manner (adulting).
Supporting is NOT nagging, doing it for them, letting them off the hook, or otherwise enabling them to push that responsibility off on other people.
Saddle up. This part is the long haul.
At some point, you’ll notice that they are taking responsibility and you can remove the scaffolding.
The day you no longer need a chore chart and the dishes still get done is a joyous day. I would encourage you to mark the transition. Say to your child something like, “I recognize that you’re taking full responsibility for this now and I’m really proud of you for stepping up and owning that… it’s yours now, I won’t mention it again unless you stop taking responsibility for some reason. Please let me know if you think you need additional support.”
This is the path to adulthood. One by one, handing the young person their responsibilities and stepping back.
Quit Bailing Them Out
If you’ve taught a kid and you know they’re competent, but you’re stuck somewhere in the scaffolding section, where you KNOW they can do it, but they ARE NOT doing it for some reason, it’s probably because you’re bailing them out. Stop bailing them out.
Rule #1 of teaching kids to take responsibility is to STOP doing anything for them that they can do for themselves.
Rule #2 is to STOP taking responsibility for anything that is their “job” now.
I’ll tell you that I struggled with #2.
When dishes piled up in the sink, laundry wasn’t put away, the floor wasn’t swept, the bathroom wasn’t clean I would get frustrated and DO IT MYSELF because that was easier. And it’s important to MY mental health to live in a tidy home. Not helpful.
My husband would say, “Stop cleaning up after them, if it gets bad enough, they’ll figure it out.”
I did not have faith in this process. And I hated the interim craziness. So, I had to leave sometimes. When I would leave, Tony would employ his method of refusing, absolutely refusing, to do the thing for them… until they grudgingly did it, and then hated the extra work they’d created for themselves, and got the memo on diligence in tiny spoonfuls daily being so much easier and happier than cleaning up big messes.
Successfully taking responsibility often requires repeated failure.
Let them fail. Let them dig themselves out. Try not to get upset about it or take it personally, it’s part of the normal learning curve. Instead, return to teaching and work alongside if you have to, point them back to the scaffolding, and quit bailing them out.
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It’s like professional development for parents.
If your child is tiny:
Start working together instead of you working on things alone or after they are in bed. Include them in the daily housework. Invest in child sized tools if you need to (Montessori resources often have a good selection of these). Work, without them knowing it, on the teaching and modeling through simple friendly inclusion. They will think it’s fun to work with you.
If your child is school aged or older:
Sit down with them and have a talk about responsibility and what it means.
Tell them, straight up, that adulthood means taking responsibility and that every single time they take on a new responsibility they mature towards adulthood. This is a good thing! A goal to work towards.
Make a list together of all of the things they are currently taking responsibility for. Show a lot of encouragement and gratitude for this.
Next, make a list of the things they think they could or should be taking responsibility for. Maybe frame this around “What do you think you should learn to be responsible for next in your journey towards adulthood?”
Start with their ideas. Then, add one or two suggestions of your own and see if they float with the kid. Lay out the “Teach, Support, Release” structure for them and ask them where they think they are for each of their skills. Do they need more teaching? Do they need support? Are they really ready to own it without intervention?
Choose ONE or at most TWO of their items to work on. Try not to overwhelm a kid. Once they get to the comfortable support stage of responsibility development with those things, add one or two more.