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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your 4-year-old child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and working together to make responsible decisions is a great way to do it.
Responsibility means being able to consider how your actions will impact yourself and others, and making the fair, kind, and safe choice. Responsible decisions that children make when they are young may seem small compared to the major decisions that many teens and adults have to make. However, every decision that a young child makes gives them the opportunity to practice thinking through a problem and how their choices will impact themself and others. They are learning how to think ahead and how to do something that might not have been their first choice but is the fair and kind thing to do. Practicing this skill in early childhood lays the foundation for higher-stakes decisions in the future.
Three-and-four-year-olds are continuing to learn what it means to make a responsible decision, how decisions might impact themselves and others, and how to repair any harm done when they make decisions that are not responsible.1 Three-and-four-year-olds are starting to remember some of the ways that you have taught them to be responsible and will follow them more often than they did in the past (“You cannot touch the toys when we are at a store” or “You can only go in the puddle with your boots on”).
As parents and those in a parenting role, you can support this learning, foster responsible decision making, and help your child understand what being responsible truly means – rather than just complying with rules to avoid consequences. This is a critical time to teach and practice responsible decision making.
The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you in growing this vital skill and build a relationship with your child that includes reliable and unconditional support in making choices.
Children learn about who they are and how they relate to others through sensitive, caring interactions with you. These interactions impact their ability to make responsible decisions that are fair, kind, and safe; to learn about and manage their feelings; and to trust in you as a caregiver. Your focus on responsibility is essential to developing lifelong habits of responsible decision making.
Today, in the short term, responsibility can create
- opportunities for your child to have new experiences;
- perspective-taking skills as your child begins to practice thinking about each choice from others points of view; and
- a sense of pride that your child was able to make a responsible choice even when it was not easy.
Tomorrow, in the long term, helping your child develop responsibility
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- provides a firm foundation for exploration, learning, and speaking up;
- allows your child to build strong friendships and relationships;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making; and
- fosters success in their personal and professional lives.
Five Steps for Talking About Responsibility
This five-step process helps you and your child in developing responsibility together. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parent relationship will support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
Three-to-four-year olds’ communication will be limited to five to six word sentences, and they may still cry as a form of communicating with you. Paying close attention to your child’s facial expressions, body movements, and words helps you better understand what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your child build trust and create empathetic interactions that let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking.
This will make a big difference for setting the stage for learning about responsibility. Watching your child as they make choices will help you understand how much they have already learned about responsibility. Every child is different, and your own child may change from day-to-day in how responsible they are depending on whether they are tired, hungry, with new people, or other factors. You are the person who will know your child’s cues better than anyone else, and you will be able to anticipate if they are about to make a responsible decision without help, if a subtle reminder will help them to stay on track, or if they will need more help.
In becoming sensitive to your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you
- show them that they can trust you to notice how they feel;
- let them know that you will support them to make sure they understand what is a responsible choice;
- will help them to be responsible if they are struggling;
- let them know that they can trust you to see problems coming;
- deepen your ability to communicate with one another; and
- make sure they know that you love them unconditionally.
- Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “What do you notice? How do you feel? How do you think the other child feels? What are you wondering?” For example, if your child is tempted to play with their sister’s markers without asking, help your child notice their own thoughts and reactions and the thoughts and reactions of their sister when she finds out what happened. You might even name what expressions and body language you notice.
- “I see you are tempted to use your sister’s markers without asking her permission. I wonder how she will feel if she knew you were going to do this. Do you think we should ask her first?”
- When reading books, notice when the characters are about to make responsible or irresponsible decisions. Take a moment to pause the story and ask your child, “What do you think will happen if he makes that decision? What would you do?” Later in the story, you can ask, “How do you think that character is feeling? Do you think it felt good to make a responsible decision?”
- If your child is feeling unsure about how to describe all of the feelings that occur when trying to be responsible or how others are feeling, consider asking questions, naming what you notice, and leaving plenty of quiet space after your questions so they have an opportunity to share their ideas too.
- “How did you feel when you first saw the markers?”
- “Was there anything that made you feel worried?”
- “How do you feel right now?”
- “How do you think you will feel next time?”
- “Is there anything we can do to remember how responsible you were today?”
- Practicing naming feelings will enable your child to identify their own feelings as well as others and seek support when they need it. This includes describing and naming the reason they are making one choice and not another. Pointing out the responsibility that they demonstrate will help them notice it and know it is there when the next challenge arises.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding a child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build your child’s sense of responsibility. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through.2
- 3-4-year-olds are copying or mimicking adult words and actions.
- 3-4-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
- 3-4-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences but do not yet have a feelings vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes longer to develop.
- 3-4-year-olds are eager to engage in pretend play by themselves and cooperatively with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- 3-4-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
- 3-4-year-olds are able to show a wider range of emotions.
- 3-4-year-olds may begin to experience separation anxiety when you leave them.
- 3-4-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Explain why it is “ok” or “not ok” to make a certain choice. Be consistent in only allowing them to make choices that you say are ok and then helping them to begin to apply those responsibility guidelines on their own. When they make a responsible decision, show them that you noticed and tell them why you think that was a good choice. An example of an opportunity to be responsible might be deciding whether to eat all of the snacks in the big bowl or whether to offer some to other family members too. Offer support when it’s needed.
- Read and “pretend play” together.
- During reading time, select a book of faces to help your child learn to identify different feelings. Point out how you can tell what each face is feeling and practice recreating those cues with your child.
- Share your thoughts and feelings. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and what signs you are giving even when it’s not comfortable. “I see that you are playing in the sandbox with your shoes on. Do you see my lips are frowning? That means I am sad because you didn’t listen to my instructions about taking your shoes off first. I am going to ask you to get out of the sandbox and take your shoes off please.”
- Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “It made me feel so much better to tell you how I was feeling and to have you take your shoes off before playing in the sandbox.”
- Develop pride in making responsible choices. In addition to growing these essential skills that lead your child to develop responsibility, there are beliefs and attitudes that you can promote to help them too. For example, when your child uses language that ignores someone else’s feelings like, “I don’t care if it will make him upset,” you may respond with:
- “Sometimes it is not easy to help others, but I know you can do it.”
- “Do you remember last time when this seemed hard? You took a deep breath and were able to do it.”
- “I wonder if we can do something that will help us get through this challenge.”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themselves.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It helps them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
To develop responsibility, it is important to practice thinking about what will happen next, consider other perspectives, notice the trusted adults that are always there to help, and remember that we are always working on being fair, kind, and safe.
- Provide opportunities for your child to make responsible decisions that are just the right size for them. For example, if your child really wants to color with their sister’s markers, stop them before they go to get them and make a plan for how they are going to ask permission first. This is much easier than waiting to mention responsibility until your child already has the markers in their hand and is ready to color with them. The goal is to come up with experiences that help them remember what it means to be responsible and are just beyond what they are comfortable with.
- Talk about responsible decisions in moments where there is no pressure to make one. For example, you can point out how good it feels to find your book waiting in just the right spot on the shelf. “Do you remember that we put this away after we read it yesterday? It is so easy to find because we were so responsible.”
- Provide books, dolls, and other materials at home that let children practice responsible decision making. When you are babysitting the baby doll, make the responsible choice to change her diaper before you take her outside to play. Point out that she probably feels a lot better now and that is what it means to be a responsible caregiver.
- Initially, practice may require more teaching, but avoid taking over and doing it for your child.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child that you can be trusted to always be there when they need you, that they can stop and consider how a decision will impact themselves and others, and they can recognize the pride and success of being responsible. You are allowing them to practice so they can learn how to ultimately make responsible decisions, independently.
Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. This support also tells your child that you see the challenge they are facing and you are here to talk to them about it and help them to make kind, fair, and safe decisions. Even if they have already done something that they think is not responsible, it is important for your child to know that you are there to help them figure out how to handle the situation. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Initially, your child may need active support. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work hard toward a goal. When a child learns a new skill, they are eager to show it off! “Show me you can make a kind decision that will help everyone.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed that you were uncertain about what to do, but you asked your friend how it would make her feel. I love seeing that you care about how your actions impact others.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is struggling to make responsible decisions, offer confidence in your child’s ability to calm down and try again. In a gentle, non-public way, you can say, “I noticed you were trying to complete that task, but I know you are hungry. Let’s get a snack and then come back and try later.”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. You can offer reflections like:
- “You seem worried about forgetting to take your backpack to the first day of preschool tomorrow. Shall we put a note on the door so we won’t forget?”
- You can also offer comfort when facing new situations to help your child gain a sense of security and face challenges rather than backing away.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example,“Your decision to include your friend was a kind one!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you invite everyone to play the game, I will give you a sticker” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “I see you made a decision to include everyone in the fun. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. If your child was not careful with the neighbor’s toys last time you visited, but seems more responsible today, notice the change. “I notice you have gotten more careful with the neighbor’s toys. I bet she feels happier to share them with you!”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like being able to make a responsible decision without any help – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Notice when your child shows a sense of responsibility or recovers smoothly from a challenging situation. These conversations might start happening naturally during your bedtime routine or when snuggling up to read stories together.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.