Teaching Kids Early On About Responsibility

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

Too many kids today seem to take things for granted, assuming adults will give them everything they need and expect little or nothing in return. Our daughter is only two-and-a-half, but I wonder what we can do in these early years that will help her grow up to be responsible.

You are wise to think about this now while your daughter is young. This is the time when good habits are formed and responsibility is learned. "Responsibility" can mean many things. For one thing, it means taking care of your own stuff. Even a 2-year old can do that by putting away her own toys and clothes, and perhaps clearing her own dishes from the table. Of course, at this age she will need you to work closely with her, and to keep the tasks small enough that she won't get frustrated or lose interest. You may need to take turns putting the toys away--first you put one on the shelf, then she does. Or you may need to fold a sweater and then let her place it in the drawer.

Responsibility also means sharing jobs that keep the household running: adding soap to the washing machine, emptying the wastebaskets, holding the dustpan while dad sweeps the floor. As kids get older, many families designate certain responsibilities that are just a part of being a family member and other jobs that are optional and may be done to earn extra spending money.

An important part of being responsible is making choices. Your daughter is old enough to make simple decisions, such as which shirt to wear, whether to have peanut butter or cheese on her sandwich, whether to have a treat now or later, or which story to read at bedtime. By learning that she has a voice in what she does, she will be able to use that voice in more important matters as she gets older.

Another aspect of responsibility is being accountable for behavior. Even when your child is only two-and-a-half, she is learning that there are consequences for her behavior, that people are happy and proud of her when she does what she is supposed to and that she is reprimanded or loses a privilege when she doesn't do what she should. She also can learn that if she hurts someone or damages someone's property, she must say she's sorry and promise not to do it again.

In all these ways, you will let your daughter know that you expect her to be responsible and you know she is capable of being responsible. By giving your child responsibilities appropriate to her developmental level, you will help her learn, "I can do it!" That is one of the most important lessons we can teach our children.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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