Learning to Take Responsibility

The idea of learning to take responsibility seems like a funny thing.  After all, isn’t it something we all just do?  In reality, not really, especially not children, but there are things we can do across the ages that will help our kids develop the sense of responsibility that we would like to see in most adults.

For the Toddler and Preschooler

Regular Responsibility:  The simplest way is to make sure they take part in cleaning up after themselves with toys and games.  Older toddlers start to develop a sense of “mine” and preschoolers certainly have it (sometimes to a fault), so making them aware of how to care for their stuff is one way that we can help them start the process of being responsible.  This is also the age you can start introducing small chores or activities that they take part in that helps the running of the house.  It may be putting the cutlery away, helping fold laundry, or sweeping with a toy broom, but having them responsible for some chore helps instill a sense of contribution and helps them see how much needs to take place in a house.

When a Problem Happens:  This age group starts off too little to really to truly comprehend making amends if something breaks or something is lost, but it develops rapidly through the preschool years.  Accidents happen and we don’t want to place an undue burden on our youngest children or else we risk making them so afraid to try or explore new things that we inhibit them.  If they do something that warrants some form of contribution to make amends, it’s fair for the parent to make the financial contribution while asking the child to do something like write a card to apologize or help the parent in some way to ease the financial burden to the parent.

For the Elementary School Age Child

Regular Responsibility:  By this stage the child should be responsible for their own toys and belongings (in terms of cleaning up), but you’re still helping them care for their space more generally.  They should also have be a weekly chore like cleaning a bathroom or a multi-weekly job like folding laundry or emptying the dishwasher.  This is also the time to help a child learn responsibility for school-related things.  Younger age children will likely start with just remembering their bags, lunch, and coats in the morning, but as they age, they should become responsible for packing and unpacking their bags, helping or fully making their own lunch, and making sure all homework is done and packed away.

When a Problem Happens:  At this stage, you should start introducing financial contributions to any amends that need to be made.  The age of the child and the degree of accident versus intent versus neglect will all need to come into play and importantly should be discussed with your child before anything happens.  It may be you up the percentage covered each year and sit down to talk about it with your child at the start of a given period (e.g., school year or birthday).  For young elementary kids, contributing even 5-10% will seem like a lot of money, especially as they often have limited means to earn it (and as I don’t recommend regular household chores as a regular way to do this with younger kids, as you can read here, so you’ll need to think of ways they can do this).  By the time kids are at the end of elementary school (age 12-13), contributing up to 40-50% should not be unreasonable.

For the Teenager

Regular Responsibility:  By now the teen should be wholly responsible for his/her own things and private space.  This also means you as a parent will need to learn to move away from the bugging train and let them learn the natural consequences if they are not already responsible, but only for their own things.  Regular chores to contribute to the house should be firmly in place, with a teen being responsible for more than an elementary child.  Finally, by the teen years, your child should also be responsible for homework and school things.  They should be packing their bags, responsible for lunches, and making sure all homework is done.  However, given the importance of school, parents should be responsible for checking in on a regular basis to make sure things are getting done and to be there to help as needed with homework or just feelings of being overwhelmed that come with increasing workloads.

When a Problem Happens:  There are a lot of new things that teens start to have to consider when it comes to responsibility: Learning to drive, having cell phones and other pieces of technology, going to parties and making their own way around, dealing with curfews, and so on.  They need to know right off the bat that they are responsible for a lot of what happens, but also that responsibility doesn’t equal being “in trouble”.  There will obviously be consequences for things like breaking curfews or violating family rules and this should be set out ahead of time, but when it comes to financial things like losing technology or learning to drive, a certain level of understanding from parents is expected.  For example, your child may get into an accident while learning to drive and this should be accepted as one of the risks parents take when letting their child earn this privilege.  The degree to which they are responsible for paying for things will depend on factors like how negligent they were.

When it comes to personal belongings like cell phones or clothes, by this stage they should be nearly 100% responsible for costs when things go wrong.  Given that children this age can get part-time jobs to help them earn money for these gadgets, parents should be focusing their finances on the things they want their child to have (e.g., if you want your child to have a cell phone to keep in touch, find out how much a cheap flip phone is with a basic plan and offer that much towards the cost). In short, you’re covering your child for school, clothes, activities, and so on, but expecting them to realize the full cost of not caring for those things or not caring for someone else’s stuff.  Hopefully this degree of responsibility means the next step – moving out and away – doesn’t also mean a rude awakening in learning to be independent and responsible.

By Tracy Cassels

July 27, 2015