Teach Your Kids Responsibility: Ten Super Hacks

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Do you always feel overburdened? As if you’ve got too much on your plate, because responsibility for the entire world somehow landed on your shoulders?

Would you like to free up a few brain cells for something else?

If so, then it’s high time you turn over some of that responsibility to your kiddos.

Experts have written entire books on teaching your kids responsibility. I never got around to reading my copy of one of the all-time bestsellers, though.

If getting your kids to be more responsible for themselves sounds appealing, here are my top ten hacks.

As always, these come not from an expert, but rather from my own trial and error. They aren’t quick fixes, they won’t work overnight, and not all of them may be right for your offspring.

But if there’s something here that you haven’t tried yet, what have you got to lose?

10. Set routines, and stick to them

Kimmie's neatly-made bedHow can your kids be responsible for their actions and belongings when they don’t know what to expect?

Routines let us know what’s coming next. If you build kiddo responsibility into your family routines – starting with the bedtime routine you set up for your infant – your kids will gradually learn how to manage their part. (Likewise, if you always do everything for them, then that’s the routine they will expect!)

As your child gets older, you can gradually attach new responsibilities to being a “big kid.” For example, while Essie isn’t yet tall enough to make her bed, Kimmie has been making hers for several years now, as part of her morning routine. With all that practice, she can do it with precision neatness, and she’s proud of that fact.

9. Give your kids choices

If kids don’t ever get to make good choices (or bad ones), then how will they learn to “own” their actions?

apple or orangeThe choices can start small: apple or orange? This video or that one? But as they get older, the stakes can get higher gradually.

I’d rather have my kiddo learn from bad choices when the stakes are small, than have them fail spectacularly when I’m no longer there to help them, when the consequences could damage their career or threaten their life.

8. Attach consequences to choices, then stick to them

Sure, it takes a grownup less than five minutes to get the toys off the living room floor - but that's not the point.
Sure, it takes a grownup less than five minutes to get the toys off the living room floor – but that’s not the point.

Speaking of consequences – there’s something to the old cliché that we learn more from our failures than our successes.

My girls have learned the hard way that if they don’t clean up their toys, then the toys become Mama’s property, and I get to dispose of them as I see fit.

This only works if you’ve clearly explained the choices and the consequences to your offspring. But our girls now know better than to ask for dessert if they were “not hungry” enough to eat a well-balanced meal first.

Today was a day of good choices in Ms. Sema's classroom.
Today was a day of good choices in Ms. Sema’s classroom.

7. Reward good choices in word and deed

That doesn’t mean that consequences are always bad. Positive reinforcement for good choices is super-important in helping your kiddos learn responsibility.

Kimmie’s kindergarten teacher Ms. Sema uses a clip chart “behavior management tool” from Teachers Pay Teachers. Each child has a personalized wooden clothespin. Everyone starts the day on the middle of the scale, the green space called “ready to learn.” The first step up from green is “Good Choices.” Kids who “clip up” to the top of the chart in a day, by making good choices repeatedly, get to pick a prize.

In our house, we make sure to celebrate good choices during the day over the dinner table or at bedtime, and sustained strings of good choices lead to extra privileges over time – privileges we tell the girls they’ve earned by showing us they’re responsible enough to handle them.

6. Give them opportunities to practice responsibility

This goes back to giving kids choices. Making the right choice once is different from making a longer-term commitment, then sticking to it.

If your child begs for a week of day camp in the summer, but comes home after the first day refusing to go back because of some interpersonal drama that took place, this is a great time to talk about sticking it out and seeing how it goes.

Likewise, if your child is itching for three months of soccer lessons, make clear before you fork over the tuition that they need to stick it out for all twelve sessions in the series. This is another way kids can learn to take responsibility for their choices.

Kimmie's morning chore chart5. Give your kids chores

If your kiddo is physically able to handle a task, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t do it. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the girls have been setting the table for dinner ever since they could reach the tabletop. And because they learned to clear their dishes after snack time in preschool, I expect them to do the same at home.

Make a chore chart, if that helps motivate your youngster. Or use a sticker chart or checklist or magnets or whatever other tracking system works.

the girls' neatly-hung towelsBut also celebrate whenever your child becomes “big kid” enough to take on new chores. It was around Kimmie’s sixth birthday that we realized she was tall enough to reach the towel rack in the girls’ bathroom. She now faithfully hangs their towels after bath time, in part because we made such a fuss over her being “big enough” to handle that responsibility.

4. Make “pitching in” the norm in your family

In addition to your kiddos’ regular chores, make a habit of including them in your everyday home maintenance. After meals, they can help load the dishwasher, or dry dishes. On cleaning day, they can help sweep the floors and wipe down bathrooms. Even infants can “help” with the laundry, and toddlers can help unpack groceries.

I explain it to my kiddos like this: I can’t help them with their special projects or their games or their play adventures until my household chores are done. The faster I get them done, the sooner I’ll be available to play with them, or set up whatever craft project or science experiment they want to do.

Alternately, I sometimes say they can’t watch a movie or draw or whatever until the kitchen is picked up, or the laundry is folded and put away.

When you put it like this, it’s amazing how quickly they will rush to help you get your work done.

3. Make managing their own stuff easy

As I’ve observed elsewhere, if you want your kids to hang up their coats and put away their shoes when they enter the house, you need to make kid-height hooks and kid-friendly shoe spots available to them.

Likewise, if you want them to put away their own books and toys, make sure they can reach the shelves.

For little kiddos, open toy storage bins work great. As long as you can crawl, you can reach the bottom-most bin to put your toys away.

As kids get older, I find that clear storage boxes in assorted sizes work well for storing toys with small parts. (Amy at Frugal Mama agrees, and takes this one step further: using a few clear bin types in uniform sizes that stack easily.)

2. Help them manage their stuff coming and going

This is about building habits as much as anything else. Having kid-height hooks and kid-friendly toy storage won’t do any good if you don’t get your little ones in the habit of using these things.

Maybe it’s a song to remind them that putting away their coats and shoes is their job, not yours. Maybe it’s making a point of setting aside 5 minutes before dinner to clean up their toys in the living room.

Perhaps it’s having a special tote bag or backpack for school stuff, if your school doesn’t provide one. Or a separate bag to keep their library books in – so that next time you go to the library, their books are ready to go, too.

Kimmie's homework stationOr maybe it’s setting a few ground rules about homework (yes, even my kindergartener has homework!). After school – when things go as they’re supposed to, anyway – Kimmie does her homework first thing, at the dining room table. Everything she needs is in a special Homework Box. When she’s done, it’s her job to put her homework supplies back in the box, and hide the box in its secret-yet-accessible home (so Essie doesn’t get into it) – then put her homework right back into her folder, in her backpack, on her backpack hook, so it’s ready to go the next day.

(And in case you’re rolling your eyes and thinking, if I could only get my kid to do that!, rest assured: this habit is definitely a work in progress!)

1. Model responsible behavior

This one may be the hardest for some of us. How do we expect our kiddos to keep track of their stuff when we can never find our own keys? Or to put their coat and shoes away, when we usually throw our own on the floor every time we get home?

More importantly, how can we expect children to manage their own responsibilities, when we haven’t yet learned how to follow through on the things we commit to, and just say no the rest of the time?

What about you? Have you found other ways to teach your kiddos responsibility? Mention them in the comments!

P.S. If you’ve got older kids and are at your wit’s end with where to start, another great-looking book that I’ll read one of these days is Cleaning House: A Mom’s Twelve-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement by Kay Wills Wyma. Check it out!


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