Have you ever wondered in awe how some children seem to be so well-mannered and responsible while others appear completely out of control? Neither situation happened by accident. Children don’t come out of the womb with any predisposition towards responsibility, they are completely the product of their parents’ training.

Short Version
  • Start young, start today
  • Avoid rewards for expected behavior
  • Dismiss excuses and get to the root issue
  • Modeling responsibility goes further than talking about it
  • Give praise and allow consequences
  • Assess your own level of responsible behavior
I am blessed to have grandchildren that are polite and responsible, but the credit goes purely to my children and their spouses. They have taken the lessons we tried to teach them from an early age and adapted and expanded on them to pass on to their own children.

If you take your own responsibility seriously – to train your children – then they will become productive, responsible adults who can take care of themselves. If not, good luck. For some solid advice on how to teach your kids responsibility, read on…


Start Young

Teaching kids responsibilityThe good news is that every child can be properly trained to learn responsibility. The bad news is that the older they get, the harder it is to do. If you don’t have a good start by age 5 or 6, you’ll struggle much more. Their attitudes start changing at this age, so laying the foundation before they get there makes the process much easier.

You should begin teaching responsibility to your kids when they are toddlers, and the simplest of tasks can be used to get them started down that road. Small children want to emulate and copy their parents and/or older siblings, so use that truth to teach. One of the simplest ideas I can think of is throwing things in the trash can. If they can walk and reach the trash, ask them to throw things away for you or to throw away the trash from their snacks when they are done.

Small children want to emulate and copy their parents and/or older siblings, so use that truth to teach.

Especially when they are toddlers, make sure you praise them for doing the right thing. Kids want to help because it gives them a sense of belonging to the family, so make sure that you let them know what a big help they are.


Put Down the Wallet

Teaching kids responsibilityYou must understand that society as a whole is pretty darned screwed up today. Pointing fingers has replaced taking responsibility, and nothing is ever our fault. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the neighbors’ fault. It’s your boss’ fault. And the primary reinforcement used today to get things done is throwing money in the direction of the problem. I’m begging you to not reward your kids with money or prizes for being responsible.

Responsibility is part of our character, and character is what we do regardless of our circumstances and when know one sees us. Doing the right thing is it’s own reward – the internal knowledge that you have good character. When you reward kids for doing the right thing, it teaches them to expect or depend on a reward every time they do something right. Life doesn’t work that way, so don’t set false expectations that will turn them sour on responsibility down the road.

When you reward kids for doing the right thing, it teaches them to expect or depend on a reward every time they do something right.

There are times when rewards or an allowance are appropriate, but never when it’s a matter of responsibility. I believe that things like keeping their room clean, putting dishes away, or feeding the dog are part of life. You don’t get rewarded for doing these things, so don’t teach them that they should either. These things are part of being a family and a responsible person. One of the biggest problems with upcoming generations is that they feel entitled to rewards for simply being a decent and responsible person. When the rewards stop coming, doing the right thing will go out the window. Don’t set them up for that kind of failure.


Fault vs Responsibility

Teaching kids responsibility“I didn’t get that done because…” Responsibility has no place for blame or finger-pointing. Everything from the word “because” on in that kind of sentence should be completely disregarded. “It’s not my fault” is almost always false and an excuse. They have to learn to adapt and overcome problems, and that means taking responsibility for getting things done no matter what happens.

I’ve told it before, but one of my favorite stories is about the dad who took away his son’s car for 6 months when he missed his curfew by only a few minutes. The son blamed his friend, who was driving that evening. The dad explained that his son knew the rules ahead of time and should have taken measures to make sure that he wasn’t late: get a different ride, plan to leave where they were much earlier, or just don’t go if there is any question about making it home on time.

When you look at it with that perspective, the fault was entirely on the son even though he wasn’t driving. Asking “what could you have done to make sure X happened” will have a good answer 99.99% of the time. Making them uncover those answers is a valuable teaching tool because it makes them use reasoning skills. Logic trumps emotions, so don’t give in to emotional responses that make no sense. They must learn to think and reason for themselves.


Praise and Consequences

Teaching kids responsibilityIf you don’t show up for work repeatedly, you’re going to get fired. If you don’t study to learn the material for your class, you will get a failing grade. That is real life, and it’s what you need to prepare them for. It is very hard for some parents to enforce rules or allow consequences to fall on their children out of empathy, but you’re not doing them any favors if you give in. Actions (or inaction) always have consequences in life, always. To lead them to believe otherwise is a lie, and a harmful one at that.

Positive reinforcement is not the same thing as a reward.

Just as you have to allow your children to endure the consequences of their actions, you also need to praise them for doing the right thing. Positive reinforcement is not the same thing as a reward. Telling your toddler “good job!” for throwing something in the trash is not only appropriate, it’s necessary. You don’t have to go overboard, but you should acknowledge good decisions or actions when they are young. For an older child, telling them “thank you, the house looks much better since you cleaned your room” is just enough reinforcement without exaggerating the situation.

Keep in mind that society is against you in this. They want to congratulate your kids for doing nothing and let them off the hook for doing wrong. You are in a major struggle for how they will turn out, and if you get lax you can be sure that the rest of the world won’t. You might think this is harsh, but when your kid’s team comes in last in a tournament you shouldn’t allow them to get a trophy. Trophies are for the winners, not for competing. They get a false sense of accomplishment from these stupid ‘participation trophies’ that will lead them to expect something later in life just for showing up. Again, setting them up for failure and disappointment.


Look in the Mirror

Teaching kids responsibilityIt’s easy to complain about how irresponsible your kids are, but they are a direct reflection of you and your guidance. If you are an irresponsible adult, you will likely raise irresponsible children. The first place to start teaching them responsibility is standing in front of your mirror, assessing yourself.

Can you teach someone how to sail a sailboat if you don’t know yourself? Of course not. So how are you to teach a small child how to do the right thing if you don’t know how to do it yourself? Before you get upset or frustrated with your kid over being responsible, step back and examine the kind of role model you are for them. Do you make excuses for why things don’t get done, or do you simply apologize and them make it right? Do you blame other people for things? Do they hear it? Then they will do the same, regardless of your instruction.

Children learn more from what their parents do than from what they say. The only way to mold a responsible adult out of your child is to start acting responsibly yourself, right now. If you point fingers and say it’s not your fault, that is exactly the response you will get from them. And don’t try to blame your parents for how you are now. That’s more of the same irresponsible attitude. Take charge of your own life and take responsibility for your actions from today forward. Then you stand a much better chance of teaching your kids responsibility.


Teaching Kids Responsibility Checklist
  • Give them responsibilities at a young age as a reward rather than a punishment
  • Responsibility means always accepting your own fault
  • Blaming others is the opposite of responsibility
  • Consequences are much better teachers than words
  • Make sure you praise more than you scold. ¬†Positive reinforcement is more powerful than negative reinforcement

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