13 Ways to Teach Responsibility (Part 2)
This week on the LizzyLife blog we’re talking about ways we can help our kids develop responsibility. There are so many simple things we can do at home to plant seeds of responsibility in their hearts and in their habits. Over time, those seeds will grow, helping our kids to develop integrity, independence, and a strong work ethic. And you wanna know the best part about these 13 things? They make our life as parents easier! They take work off of us! Initially, it may take some thought and effort as we teach kids about taking responsibility for their own toys or chores or homework, but in the end it all adds up to less work for us! Can I get an “amen”?!
Missed the first seven ways to teach kids responsibility? Click here to catch up!
The Bible has so much to say about the joy of hard work, and the importance of having integrity and a strong work ethic. In Genesis 1, we even find God setting an example for us, taking joy in the work of creation. When all his hard work is done, he experiences the satisfaction of a job well done, and gives himself a rest: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
8. Start early.
Toddlers love to feel independent and “big.” Their confidence and happiness soar when we allow them to take responsibility for small things. Oh, how my two-year-old loves it when I give her little jobs to do. Off she toddles down the hall, little curls bobbing proudly, a girl on a mission. She especially loves putting her toys and socks and shoes away, and choosing her socks and shoes for the day. When she’s driving me nuts just before dinner time, begging me to hold her when I need both hands free to cook, I ask her to set the table for me. I hand her a bunch of forks and spoons and napkins, and she is thrilled with the job. Yeah, the table looks messy, but it gets my hands free for five minutes! She also loves to help load wet laundry into the dryer—she even puts in the dryer sheet and pushes the start button.
Plant seeds of responsibility in little hearts by encouraging toddlers to take responsibility for their toys. Crawlers and early walkers love “clean-up” games. (Clean-up-game ideas coming in next month’s LizzyLife newsletter—you can sign up in the left sidebar!) Whenever we move our kids from one room to another, we can remind them to clean up the mess they just made. Or whenever we finish doing one activity and move on to another, let’s remind them to clean up the first activity. This habit makes a huge difference once kids hit the age of three and four, if we don’t want our home to become buried under a mound of toys and crayons. And remember this: If we do all the cleaning for our kids when they’re young, but then suddenly start expecting them to clean up after themselves when they’re older, our kids may resist the change. By not expecting anything of them in their early years, we may have accidentally set ourselves up for a battle of wills. Keep this in mind: If toy clean-up is always a regular part of children’s days, then over time, cleaning up after themselves becomes part of who they are and what they do.
9. Whenever your family has company coming over, recruit the whole family to help get the house ready.
Our kids are all involved in preparing the house when company comes over. We all made the mess, so we all clean the mess. We will all enjoy having our friends over, so we all get the house ready for our friends. This teaches kids to take ownership of their house, to be good hosts for family friends, and to take pride in doing their part to help the household run.
10. Simple routines help kids to remember and learn.
I’ve learned a lot by watching my kids’ teachers and how they manage their classrooms. Teachers spend a lot of time in the first few weeks of school establishing the rhythm and routine of the day, reinforcing simple steps like: Arrive in class, put your bag away, empty your homework folder, do your morning work at your desk. . . . The students quickly catch on, and the classroom runs smoothly. This has great applications for our home life as well! Routines help kids know what to do when, without constant reminders (translation: nagging) from us. For example, when my kids get home from school, they are supposed to wash the school-bus germs off their hands, hang up their book bags, empty the trash from their lunch bags, then put away their lunch bags. This takes about two minutes of their time, and then they can eat a snack or go play or whatever they want to do. Honestly, my girls still need a reminder about this routine most days, but my son has it down pat. I figure the longer we stick with the routine, the sooner they’ll all start remembering on their own!
11. Ask older siblings to help with younger kids from time to time.
Sometimes when I’m frantically trying to get dressed to leave the house (please tell me I’m not the only one who has trouble finding five free minutes to get out of my pajamas!), I ask one of the older kids to entertain the two-year-old for a few minutes so I can shut the door and enjoy a tiny moment of that magical experience I haven’t really had for nine years: privacy. I say, “Blake, you are totally in charge of Sawyer for the next five minutes. I need you to make sure she doesn’t get into trouble, and if she’s not happy playing by herself, I need you to play or read with her so she will give me a few minutes alone.” I was nervous the first few times I asked my kids for help like this, but I pretended I wasn’t and acted like, “Sure, you can totally keep a two-year-old happy for five minutes!”—and you know what? The big kids surprised me—and themselves—by doing a wonderful job! I listened from the other room, and even peeked in on them, and it was all giggles and sweetness. You know what this does? It encourages sibling closeness by getting an older sibling to pay special attention to a little one. It encourages responsibility and a healthy sense of I-am-the-older-kid-so-I-should-look-out-for-the-little-ones. And as a fantastic bonus, it allows moms to not leave the house in their pajamas. (Obviously, you’ll have to evaluate your kids’ ages and levels of responsibility before you try this in your home!) Other ways to try this out: Ask an older sibling to help a little one find a jacket before the family heads out the door; ask an older sibling to help a younger one read out loud; ask a big kid to help a little one hunt for a lost toy. You don’t want the littles to constantly depend on older siblings, of course (see all the other points in this post, ha!), but there is a place for siblings helping one another.
12. Don’t do your kids’ homework with them.
I can hear some gasps of shock and horror, echoing across cyberspace. “But—but—but,” some are sputtering, “my kids’ teachers make it sound like I have to do my kids’ homework with them at home! If I don’t sit there and hold their hand the whole time, I’m a Bad Parent!” I disagree, and here’s why: Our kids’ homework is their homework, not ours. Our kids’ grades should be a reflection of their work, not ours. Most children are fully capable of sitting still and doing their own homework without much help, hovering, or hounding from their parents. (I totally get that there are some kids who have special needs in this area . . . hang with me and we’ll get there.)
There’s a big difference between engaging with our kids’ education by cultivating a home atmosphere of inquiry, exploration, and the love of learning (all good things!), versus doing our kids’ work for them (not a good thing). Should we encourage curiosity and learning? Of course. Should we stay aware of what our kids are studying at school? Absolutely! That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about too much hand-holding in homework—an area that should be our kids’ responsibility.
One reason I take this approach is, I’ve seen it work, and work well. When I was growing up, my parents loved hearing about our schoolwork and discussing what we were learning, but they didn’t help me and my siblings with homework unless we got stuck and asked for help. If we needed help, they were always happy to step in and take a look—but even then, as intelligent and educated as my parents are, many times they weren’t much help. They were often like, “Ummm, we didn’t do math that way when I was growing up, so I’m as lost as you are. Sorry.” (My dad was a fantastic editor for my papers, though—and the interactions we had about writing encouraged me to pursue writing as a career!)
But you know what? Even those moments—the times when we got stuck and Mom and Dad were stumped, too—taught us a lesson in responsibility. My parents coached us through how to speak with our teachers about questions or areas where we were struggling. What a great life lesson! We learned to have the confidence to speak up at school the next day and say, “I don’t understand. I need help. Can you work with me?” And in the end, my siblings and I all got great grades. We learned to be hard workers and to motivate ourselves. This translated into good study habits that got us through college, when we were really on our own, without a parent to step in to help us.
And now that I’m a parent, I’m using these same principles with my kids. I care a great deal about my kids’ education, and I love hearing about what they are learning at school. I love to help them find fun applications at home for topics they are studying at school. I especially love reading with my kids. We have an atmosphere at home of curiosity and adventure, and we hope this will encourage our kids to be lifelong learners. But even so . . . Kevin and I rarely do our kids’ homework with them. Our second and third graders are totally responsible for doing their own homework. The only thing I do every day is encourage them to get started, then when they’re done I ask, “Did you finish your homework?” Unless they’re having a problem, I rarely get involved. I might glance over their work every so often, just to be sure they’re doing a good job, but most of the time, they are. And you know what? They are doing great in school! Are there exceptions to this? Sure. When my son had extra advanced math homework last year, he needed a lot of help, and we had fun working through the complex problems together.
The only one of our children who consistently needs some help is my kindergartener, who has trouble reading all the directions. So when it’s time for her to do her homework, she sits at the kitchen table, we read the directions together, and then I go on about my business in the kitchen. We’re there in the same room, and I’m available to answer questions if she gets confused or stuck, but I don’t sit there at the table with her, doing the work step by step with her. She does the work herself, and you know what? She is so proud of herself! She feels big and responsible and mature, just like her big brother and sister.
A note about homeschooling: Even if you homeschool your kids, these principles apply: Make sure your kids don’t depend on you to hold their hand too much when they do all their schoolwork.
A note on kids with special needs, learning disabilities, and ADHD: Children with special challenges will need more help and intervention, and extra encouragement and engagement at home. That’s totally fine. But again, the principles here still apply. Remember our end goal as parents: to raise responsible, independent children who can navigate the world successfully when we are not right there to help them, motivate them, or hold them accountable. Even if our kids have some learning disabilities, delays, or difficulties, our end goal is to equip them to mature over time so that eventually they can manage their own studies in their own way. Our big-picture goal is to arm them with strategies that work for their unique needs, along with a strong work ethic and the ability to focus and give their best effort, even when Mom or Dad aren’t there to help.
If you’re struggling with the unique challenges of working with a child who has ADHD, my brother’s story might encourage you. One of my brothers has ADHD, and finishing homework was always difficult for him. What took other kids half an hour might take him two hours. But even so, my parents didn’t do his homework for him. I’m sure they were sometimes tempted to sit down with him and go through his homework together, problem by problem. It definitely would have gone faster that way! But it would have backfired in the end, because he wouldn’t have learned to discipline himself and focus without my parents’ help. Instead, my parents coached him in strategies that helped him train himself to focus. My parents concentrated on equipping him with strategies that helped him concentrate for periods of time. They taught him to be a diligent worker. They experimented with all kinds of creative strategies, like buying him a timer and encouraging him to work for ten-minute intervals without stopping, then switching subjects so he wouldn’t get bored. My brother learned and grew, and went on to get a scholarship to a very competitive university, and from there he got an MBA at one of the best business schools in the country. Now that he is a grown-up with a real job—a demanding, detail-oriented job—he still uses a timer to help himself focus, and he is excelling in his work!
13. Pull a Mary Poppins.
I have always loved that scene in the movie Mary Poppins when all the furniture and toys start dancing while the kids are cleaning up. How often I have wished I could make cleaning that fun at my house! But even if we can’t do magic, we can pull a Mary Poppins and keep things fun; we can follow the seven dwarves’ advice and whistle while we work!
Having a family cleaning time? Turn on loud music and sing at the top of your lungs. Tell jokes while you clean. Play some clean-up games. Set a timer and turn the cleaning into a race. Surprise your kids with a special treat or reward when they go the extra mile in housework.
Teaching kids responsibility is one of the most rewarding parts of parenting. Not only do we enjoy the benefit of having kids who are helpful around the house, but we get to watch our children blossom into amazing people. We can take a healthy sense of pride as we watch them mature in their responsibilities at home and school, and prepare for whatever role God has designed for them in this world.
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Elizabeth works from home as a writer, editor, diaper changer, baby snuggler, laundry slayer, not-so-gourmet chef, kid chauffeur, floor mopper, dog groomer, and tantrum tamer. She is always tired, but it's mostly the good kind.