University of Illinois Extension

Raising Responsible Kids

Debbie McClellan, Family Life Educator

Do you ever ask yourself, "How can I get this child to be more responsible for doing homework, cleaning up, getting ready on time or making better choices?" Everyone wants children to grow up to be responsible. Right?

If we are honest, many of us want children to do what we want done, how we want it done, and when we want it done. This is true especially if we work in a setting where we are told what to do, with little room for our input. Obedience is a characteristic that has been highly valued in previous generations.

But always telling a child what to do doesn't encourage self-direction or how to make good choices. Stating, "You do it or else!" or "My way or the highway!" may get obedience for fear of punishment, but will the child do what's desired - even when you aren't looking?

Responsible means a person is placed in control, but has to be accountable. He has control and makes the decisions. He doesn't just follow orders. Sometimes he doesn't do what we think is best. But he must be accountable for the choices he makes. That means he faces the consequences of his actions, and hopefully learns from mistakes.

Of course, we must consider a child's development. Young children require more direction and supervision, but they can still make "supervised" choices and accept the outcome.

For Example

"You can choose to get your pajamas on and brush your teeth before the timer goes off, and we will have time to read two stories." If the timer goes off and the teeth aren't brushed you state, "I see you've made your choice - we'll have only one story tonight."

"You can ride your tricycle on the sidewalk and continue to play, or you can choose to ride your tricycle in the flowers and lose your "driver's license" for the rest of the day." If she rides into the flowers, say, "I see you've made your choice," and then put the tricycle away.

It's very easy to give in to a child's wants or needs to avoid a battle, or to just help him out. After all, we may recognize difficulties the child has faced and want to make life "easier." It can be hard to stand by and let your grandchild be accountable or accept the consequences when you could easily bail him out. After all - he'll do better next time, right? Probably not!

Think back to a time when you learned the hard way. Would you remember the lesson as well if you hadn't had to face the consequences?

Let's look at what kids have to say. Children between the ages of six and 12 were asked why they do things like going to bed on time, cleaning their rooms or doing what parents ask without talking back. Younger children said they wanted to please their parents. As the children got older, they reported internal reasons like a sense of pride in doing something well, going to bed early to feel better the next day, or cleaning their rooms to find things more easily.