Listen to an audio file of this tool.
Now Is the Right Time!
Children ages 5-10 are working on understanding what it means to act responsibly. They are working to understand the rules and apply them in various settings. They are working on their own independence. They are increasingly taking care of their bodies (eating right, getting exercise). They are learning about relationships (managing their feelings and impulses, empathizing and working through conflict, being dependable and keeping promises). They are managing homework and extracurriculars and contributing to the household in which they live (doing chores, cooperating with rules and expectations).
As they develop they will also test boundaries, forget things, and break rules. When they do, they require guidance on how to approach a hurt relationship, revisit missed obligations, and repair harm. This is a normal part of their development and necessary for learning how to take responsibility.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can choose to be purposeful and deliberate in the ways you teach your child to act responsibly. Making responsible decisions can involve identifying problems, analyzing situations, solving problems, evaluating, reflecting, and considering the ethical implications or consequences of choices.
Acting responsibly is one of the most important skills your child can learn from you. Research confirms that children are developing cause and effect thinking.1 This directly impacts their capacity to take responsibility for their actions. Once they understand how their actions and decisions affect not only themselves, but those around them, they will approach even the smallest things they do in their day with a sense of responsibility and pride. Such an important skill takes a lot of planning and practice for a parent to teach and many opportunities for a child to try out and redo before it is mastered.
Teaching your children to act responsibly takes practice and can be learned over time. This process can engage each one of their social and emotional skills as they learn how to manage their impulses and make healthy choices that have a positive impact on others. As you utilize teachable moments that grow your child’s skills, your relationship with your child will be enriched, and they’ll advance in their ability to make responsible choices. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters.
When you are going over your morning routine with your five-year-old, your eight-year-old forgot to do a homework assignment, or your ten-year-old accidentally breaks a neighbor’s lawn chair, these situations are all opportunities to teach responsibility.
Today, in the short term, teaching responsibility can create
- a sense of confidence that you can help your child make healthy, contributing choices, heal hurt relationships, and make up for mistakes made;
- a greater understanding by your child of the connection between their actions and the impact on themselves and others; and
- trust that your child is growing the ability to make good choices.
Tomorrow, in the long term, teaching responsibility helps your child
- build skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making;
- learn independence and self-sufficiency; and
- build assertive communication to express needs and boundaries, critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure.
Five Steps for Growing Responsibility
This five-step process helps you guide your child to make responsible choices. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and a healthy parenting relationship support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about responsibility by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to their daily responsibilities, so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and a sense of ownership);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- will be working in collaboration with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their day; and
- will grow problem-solving skills.
Consider the daily responsibilities that may be appropriate for your child to do to take care of themselves, their possessions, and their relationships. Questions you could ask include:
- “Tell me about what you are doing (or what needs to be done) to take care of yourself.” (brush teeth, shower, exercise)
- “How’s that going?”
- “What are you doing (or could be done) on your own?”
- “What can I do to help you?”
- Tell me about what you are doing (or what needs to be done) to take care of your possessions?” (pets, clothes, room)
- “How’s that going?”
- “What are you doing (or could be done) on your own?”
- “What can I do to help you?”
- “Tell me about what you are doing (or what needs to be done) to take care of your relationships?” (spending time with friends, connecting with family)
- “How’s that going?”
- “What are you doing (or could be done) on your own?” (sharing, including others, giving a call)
- “What can I do to help you?” (arranging playdate, reminders to call)
Use your best listening skills! Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
Avoid letting the question turn into an accusation. Remember to stay calm and that the goal of the question is to help the child uncover feelings.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
The fundamental purpose of teaching responsibility is to grow the skills of taking responsibility through constructive actions such as making healthy choices, caring for their environment and possessions, caring for their relationships, and repairing harm. Learning new skills and behaviors requires modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Learning about your child’s developmental milestones can help you have reasonable expectations for your child.
- Five-year-olds are working on understanding rules and routines. Consistency helps them feel a sense of stability. Sometimes they have to break rules or enforce them with others to internalize their newfound understanding. Though they may make messes, they are eager helpers so this is a good time to begin guiding them to care for their environment.
- Six-year-olds may be more apt to question your rules. They thrive on encouragement. They can become critical of others and need experience and encouragement with kindness and inclusion.
- Seven-year-olds crave structure and may struggle with changes to the schedule. They may be moody and require reassurance from adults.
- Eight-year-olds are more resilient when they make mistakes. The approval of their peers and teachers is very important.
- Nine-year-olds can become easily frustrated. They need directions that contain one instruction. They may worry about peer approval and their own appearance and interests. They may be tough on themselves when they make a mistake.
- Ten-year-olds are developing a strong sense of right and wrong and fairness. They tend to be able to work through conflicts with friends more rapidly. Because they are keen to understand justice, they will also better understand the value when you guide them to repair harm.
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.2 This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences when expectations are not met.
It can be easy for parents or those in a parenting role to scold a child who has made a poor choice inducing a feeling of shame. Instead, you want children to feel empowered to take steps toward making something better. Remember that even children are their own worst critic and may already have intense messages of failure generated in their self-talk. Use a tone that sends a message of support for guiding them toward a next better decision.
- Model responsibility for your child. Find chances at a store, at the park, or during a regular routine at home where you can model responsibility. You could say, “It is our responsibility to pick up the space so that it is ready for the next person.” Or, “I promised that I would make cookies for the bake sale at school. It is my responsibility to get them there on time.”
- Call out responsibility when you see it — whether it involves an action your child has taken, another family member, or a neighbor. Children need lots of opportunities to become aware of how responsibility is demonstrated.
- Brainstorm ways you can take responsibility together. Generating ideas can add to your child’s confidence to make constructive choices. For example, you could say, “What are some ideas you have that would help to leave this space better than you found it?” “Let’s pick up the games we were playing before we leave. Can you think of anything else we should do before going?”
- Work on your family feelings vocabulary. Children ages 5-10 are still learning about feelings. Notice and name feelings when a family member is showing an expression to offer plenty of practice. Ask, don’t tell. “You look sad. Is that right?” Being able to identify feelings is the first step in successfully managing feelings and acting responsibly.
- Model assertive communication through “I-messages.” Here’s an example: “I feel (insert feeling word) when you (name the words or actions that upset you) because (state the impact).” Here’s another example: “I feel sad when you say hurtful things to your brother. It hurts his feelings.” This helps you take responsibility for your feelings while avoiding blaming language like “You did…” (which closes down the mind and ears of the other). “I-messages” help communicate the problem constructively.
- Teach your child how to repair harm. When they damage or break an object or hurt someone’s feelings, talk to them about what they could do to repair or replace the object or help heal the relationship.This could include apologizing, doing an act of kindness for the other, writing a note, drawing a picture, or offering a hug.
When you are reflecting on your child’s feelings, you can think about unpacking a suitcase. Frequently, there are layers of feelings that need to be examined and understood, not just one. Anger might just be the top layer. After you’ve discovered why your child was angry, you might ask about other layers. Was there hurt or a sense of rejection involved? Perhaps your child feels embarrassed? Fully unpacking the suitcase of feelings will help your child feel better understood by you as they become more self-aware.
Create a ritual of sharing words of love and care at bedtime. Consider that ending the day reflecting on how much you appreciate one another could just be the best way to send your child off to sleep.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines can be 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 themself.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence and grows their ability to make constructive choices. It will also help them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Allow your child opportunities to take responsibility for their own tasks or relationships — even when you know you could do it faster or better.
- Proactively remind. Before your nighttime routine starts, you might say, “Remember how we talked about taking responsibility to get yourself ready for bed? What do you need to do to get ready for bed tonight? Brush teeth, get pajamas on, etc.?”
- Use “Show me…” statements. When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say, “Show me how you are able to take responsibility by making things better with your sister.”
- Offer limited and authentic choices. Offering them a choice, even if small — “Will you talk to her directly or write her a note?” — can return a sense of control to their lives. It also offers valuable practice in responsible decision making.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you went back to your sister to talk to her after you fought to make things better. That’s how you take responsibility and heal the relationship.”
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your child has caused harm, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through to repair it. They may need to hold your hand through that process, and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
- Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. You might ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?” You should answer the questions as well. Children may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts are a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You are going to see Julie today. How will you let her know that you were sorry for your words yesterday?”
- Learn about development. Each new age will present differing challenges. Becoming informed regularly about what developmental milestones your child is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Promote an “I can” belief. Your child needs to hear that you believe in their ability to take responsibility for their nighttime routine, turning their homework assignments in on time, or mending a friend’s hurt feelings. Your comments and reflections will matter greatly in how competent they feel to take responsibility for their actions.
- Foster friendships. Close friends can be an invaluable source of empathy and support for your child. Reserve your judgment and coach toward making amends when conflicts arise.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different healthy coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after an inappropriate behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process and avoiding harm.
- First, get your own feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check, you are able to think through the situation, examine what might naturally follow, and provide logical consequences that fit the behavior.
- Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2.
- Third, consider a logical consequence of their actions as a teachable moment. Be certain to consider the following questions before making your decision: (1) What will you teach with this consequence? (2) Has a natural consequence already taken place such as a friend turning away, a broken toy, a failed grade? Sometimes the natural consequence is more than enough and you don’t need to impose yet another. (3) Will the logical consequence be obviously connected to the poor choice so that you can teach cause and effect with the action?
Learning to take responsibility after making a poor choice takes time. Children ages 5-10 may need your ideas, support, and guidance a number of times since each situation will be unique. That’s okay. What’s important is that you work to understand their feelings, teach new behaviors, and practice all the while maintaining a healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child. Your healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child is what is most important.
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 in promoting positive behaviors and helping your child manage their feelings. 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, “I noticed you made up with your sister even before I said anything. That’s the way to be a big sister.”
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 feed the dog all week without being asked, you’ll get extra game time” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You fed the dog all week without being asked. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you picked up trash on the neighbor’s lawn left by your friends. That’s really taking responsibility.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. 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. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
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.