“Why can’t you be more responsible?” How many times have we said it, thought it, wished it about our own children and heard it coming from the mouths of other parents? We want our kids to be responsible with a capital R. We want our kids to be the kind of people other people can depend on. We want them to keep track of their stuff, manage their time and their money, and take care of their belongings. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to come pre-programmed to do all this. Like most civilized behavior, responsibility is something that has to be learned and we, the parents, are the teachers.
How do we teach responsibility? With actions small and large throughout each and every day. Every time we are on time when we leave for work, when we pick up the kids, or go to a party, we show our kids what it means to be responsible about time. When we buy the smaller TV set instead of the large one we might really want but can’t afford, we demonstrate responsible use of money. When we do our jobs with some grace; when we take care of our possessions; when we keep our promises; when we just generally do the right thing as a matter of course, we are not only being decent, responsible human beings, but we are modeling for our children how it’s done. Being responsible isn’t always easy, convenient, or pleasant. Being responsible means being our most mature selves.
As with most things, kids pick up our real feelings through some mysterious transmission in the air. Regardless of what we say, scold, or preach, if we don’t believe in our heart of hearts that it’s important to take responsibility seriously, if we don’t actively demonstrate responsible behavior every day, they won’t either.
Responsibility is a big concept to grapple with. While talking with neighbors and friends, we came up with 8 principles that break it up into teachable habits. This is a friendly reminder to all of us that when we incorporate these principles into daily family life, the kids are more likely to become the kind of responsible people we want them to be.
Principles of Responsible People
- Treat other people with consideration. This isn’t a new idea. The golden rule, “do to others as you would have them do to you,” has been around for thousands of years and pretty much sums up what it means to be responsible to other people. Parents who treat each other and their children with respect and courtesy show their kids that that is how human relationships should be. Parents who use the language of courtesy (please, thank you, excuse me, you’re welcome) regardless of the age of the person they are addressing show their children that using those words is a normal and expected part of daily life. When kids see their parents settle disagreements in a friendly way, they learn that people can disagree and still be friends.
- Understand that work isn’t unusual, unfair, or unsatisfying. One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is that work is a part of life and that it can be gratifying. Parents who moan and sigh about chores shouldn’t be surprised when their kids do the same. If we want our kids to be enthusiastic helpers, we need to whistle while we work, and mean it, at least most of the time. Yes, work can be challenging, dirty, time-consuming, and boring. But it can also feel good to get those challenging, dirty, time-consuming and boring things done and done well. Instilling pride in work and the value of doing it carefully, whether making the bed in the morning or finding the cure for cancer, is a great gift. Work of various kinds is a big part of most people’s lives. People who have a positive attitude toward it tend to be happier and healthier.
- Respect belongings. My grandfather had it down to a simple sentence: “Take care of your things and they will take care of you.” Parents who want their children to take care of their clothes, their toys, their rooms, and their bicycles show them how it’s done by taking care of their clothes, their toys, their rooms, and their cars. When handling things with care is the norm, when putting things where they belong is a routine, when making things neat and clean is seen as a pleasure, kids will follow suit. Everyone benefits. Favorite clothes are available when wanted. Toys (whether a parent’s sound system or a kid’s Lego collection) don’t get broken. Rooms are a pleasure to be in. Vehicles work.
- Respect others’ belongings. Two-year-olds operate on the assumption that “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.” Once out of toddlerhood, operating under the assumption that other people have a right to decide who can use their stuff and when is part of the challenge of becoming responsible. Parents who model respect for others’ ownership of possessions, who ask before borrowing and return what is borrowed (even if, and especially when, the object in question belongs to the child) lay the groundwork for mutual respect.
- Strive to be on time. In most of the Western world, being on time, getting things done when we say we will, and being respectful of others’ time all are valued attributes of dependable people. Responsible people resist the temptation to roll over when the alarm goes off and get to work and appointments on time. They understand that it is disrespectful to keep other people waiting and that it is disruptive to other people’s lives and schedules to always show up late. They’ve learned to meet deadlines or to negotiate it ahead of time when they can’t. Parents who respect time raise children others can count on.
- Spend responsibly. Knowing how to live within one’s means is a life skill that can mean the difference between relative contentment and chronic dissatisfaction. Despite the fact that our culture seems to conspire against responsible money habits (how many credit card offers did you receive today?), we are not helpless to teach our kids how to earn, spend, and save. When kids see their parents regularly make careful financial choices, they learn that there are times when it is wise to spend and times when it is better to wait.
- Keep promises. Responsible people do their best to make promises they intend to keep. When we do what we say we will do (or offer an apology and an explanation when it turns out we can’t), we show our children how trust is maintained in relationships. Children who grow up expecting to keep their word become people others can trust.
- Make a habit of doing the right thing. Some of us older folks remember Eddie Haskell of “Leave It to Beaver” fame. (Younger people have been introduced to the same guy thanks to cable.) Eddie was charming, generous, and responsible when adults were around, selfish and obnoxious when they weren’t. I suspect Eddie worked as a character because we recognize that there is a piece of him in all of us. The Eddie in us sometimes wants to cut corners, to be selfish, to be irresponsible. But responsibility is a full-time job. Kids are quick to catch on if we make exceptions for ourselves and come to expect that we’ll do the same for them.
If we only obey the speed limit when police are around, our kids will conclude that they only need to obey the rules when they know the adults are watching. If we claim a child is younger than he or she is to get a better deal at a restaurant or movie theatre or amusement park, you can bet that child is watching and taking it in.
There are many books and articles available that give parents helpful and practical ideas for encouraging responsible behavior in our kids. But no matter how many clever ways we work on teaching the skills, no matter how many chore charts we set up or explanations we offer, the hard truth is that we can’t expect responsible behavior unless we practice these principles ourselves. It’s only being responsible.