Kids need responsibility. It helps them to grow and develop. It teaches them how to look after things, and the value of goods and experiences. Learning responsibility as a child prepares them for adult life and shows them more about how to look after themselves.
But finding age-appropriate ways to teach them about responsibility – while keeping them safe, looking after them, and challenging them – isn’t always easy. Too much, too soon can lead to disaster. But never adding more responsibilities doesn’t teach them anything, and doesn’t help them to prepare for later life. You can’t keep expectation levels for a teenager the same as they were when that child was a preschooler.
The trick is finding the right balance – but sometimes this is easier said than done.
Kids need to know that being responsible and taking charge of things isn’t just a chore. Being responsible kids can lead to good things happening and is hugely beneficial. But, at the same time, they need to be safe4, and they need to understand helping out as a natural part of family life – not a huge burden to avoid.
Giving kids extra responsibility, and teaching them the importance of being a responsible person, shouldn’t be a chore or a punishment. It should be something that they want. This post will give you tips to get you started, as well as links to tons of other helpful resources (both from this website and across the web).
This is a collaboration post. However, please know I stand behind everything written here, and only include links to products/services/resources I’m willing to recommend personally.
Tips On Teaching Your Kids Responsibility
You can start giving your children responsibility as soon as they are able to do small tasks for themselves. Even toddlers love to “help out” around the house. Take them up on their enthusiasm when they’re little, and it will be easier to continue to get them to help as they get older. (Bonus: helping out around the house is a great way to teach kids all sorts of skills, from colors and shapes to counting and simple arithmetic.)
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There are so many tasks that young children can do:
- They can clear their dishes, with help.
- They can help put wet clothes into front-load washer/dryers, or hand you wet clothes for hanging.
- Even toddlers can pick up their toys, with encouragement,
- They can learn to put their dirty clothes in the hamper.
- They can help get dirty clothes from the hamper to the laundry room.
Start giving them responsibility for small tasks that they can manage when they are very young, and it won’t suddenly be a shock when you start expecting more from them.
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Give them age-appropriate jobs
Then, as they get older, start increasing their tasks:
- As soon as kids can reach high enough, they can set the table and make their beds.
- Children as young as four and five should be keeping their own rooms tidy, cleaning up spills/messes on the floor, and helping with vacuuming or sweeping. They can also fold/put away laundry, and can help with meal prep (washing/drying veggies, making a salad, learning to use a knife safely).
- When kids are school-age, they should be helping with regular daily/weekly cleaning tasks. We’ve had good luck with both chore charts and chore jars here.
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Or just ask them to help out when you need it. If they balk at this, you can discuss how you help them with things when they ask, and explain that again, this is what family members do for each other. Helping each other out is one of the joys and one of the privileges of being part of a family unit and sharing a home.
Let them help
One problem that many families have goes like this:
- Parents want to give their children responsibility;
- Children want to help out;
- But parents are afraid to let kids help out, out of fears that the kids will make a mess or won’t do jobs “well”/ the “right” way.
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A young child makes messes; that’s a fact of life. If they help you wash up, they’ll probably be more of a hindrance at first. But letting them help, even if it increases your workload in the short term, will mean that they’ll always want to help.
Even more importantly, having children learn to clean up their own messes (whether a spilled beverage or muddy tracks on the floor) can reinforce that avoiding messes in the first place (when possible) saves everyone work.
And let’s face it, none of us was born doing everything perfectly the first time anyway. When kids are little, yes, it may seem that letting them “help” fold towels or make the salad means the job takes ten times longer than necessary. But we all get better at basic skills with practice. So the more you encourage them to help and praise them for progress over the time, the more likely they are to want to KEEP helping as they get older.
Praise a job well done
Experts suggest that you shouldn’t reward your children for doing things that they should be doing. It’s not sending the right message. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t praise them when they do a job well.
Say thank you and well done when it’s required. And be specific when giving kids praise. Instead of just “You’re great!,” try “You did a great job setting the table!” or “You’re getting really good at making your bed!” or “Thanks for remembering to put your shoes and coat away.” Being specific in your compliments will go even farther in reinforcing the desired behaviors.
Consider a pet
Kids love pets. Pets offer kids a companion and a source of comfort. A pet like a dog can help the whole family to get more exercise, and give you something to bond over even when times are tough. And a pet can be a “safe” audience to practice their reading skills on, or to confide in when they’re upset and don’t want to talk to a parent.
Pets are also a great way to teach kids responsibility:
- A pet gives them something to look after and care for. It also shows them the benefits of care and attention.
- If they look after their pet and take care of them, they’ll get love and attention back.
- Just make sure you don’t do what many parents do and entirely take over pet care as soon as your child gets bored. Help out, by all means, but give them specific pet care responsibilities that are appropriate for their age and the pet in question.
When the time comes, get them a phone
You might have already considered buying your kid a phone, but find that you are worried about online safety and would rather wait until they are a little older. (For what it’s worth, our family has taken the Wait Until 8th pledge – check it out if you haven’t heard of this movement!)
But you can’t put this off forever. Teens have practical reasons for needing a phone, and should be able to handle the responsibilities that go with it. When that time comes, you can order your phone tracking app today at the Family Orbit to keep them safe, and a phone can be a great way to teach them a different kind of responsibility.
Set them a budget, or make them earn money to pay their phone bill. Also set screen time rules; you might even consider having them sign a contract agreeing to the terms you set. And make it clear that if they go beyond their budget, don’t take care of their phone, or violate the rules you’ve agreed to, their phone will go (as we call it in our family) “on vacation.”
Keep expectations reasonable
You can’t expect a 3-year-old to do the same as a 15-year-old. But even when they are older, sometimes we expect too much. They’ve got homework, friends, and other commitments.
So try to keep your expectations reasonable as kids get older, and rearrange kids’ responsibilities over time into something that works with their other commitments. This is one reason we developed (and the girls still love) our “Cleaning Power Hour.” Once they get their weekly cleaning chores done early Sunday afternoon, they have the rest of the afternoon free – and they know I won’t hassle them to do other chores, beyond the usual cleaning-up-their-toys-as-they-go.
Responsibility shouldn’t make kids unhappy or stop them being a child. It should be part of their role in your family, and they need to understand this – but they still need time to be kids, to play, and to daydream.
If you are going to teach responsibility, you also need to teach consequences. Let them know what will happen if they neglect their duties, and make sure you stick to it.
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Our favorite hack for doing this is having things go “on vacation.” If the girls don’t clean up their toys soon after we ask them, we put things “on vacation.” The same happens to their school-issued iPads if they don’t follow our family tech rules at home. Each time something goes “on vacation,” it stays away longer; if necessary, it eventually goes on “permanent vacation.”
Being without a favorite toy or game for the rest of the day, weekend, week, or month sends a clear message about the consequences of not following the rules or taking care of their things.
Above all else, you should be consistent in your expectations if you want your kids to truly learn. When we go to visit grandparents, we expect the girls to make their beds, clear their dishes, and clean up their toys, just like they do at home. And when we go on family vacations, we make sure the kids take responsibility for their own belongings at all times.
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Yes, when they were toddlers and preschoolers, we as parents were still ultimately making sure they could manage their bags, didn’t leave things on the plane, and didn’t forget their tiny backpacks at the security checkpoint. But following the same habits as at home – put your shoes right next to the door so you can find them later, make sure you refill your water bottle, etc. – will both help to reinforce these behaviors overall, and make your lives easier while you’re in unfamiliar surroundings.
What did I miss? What’s your favorite tip for teaching your kids responsibility? Let us know in the comments!
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