“Every right implies a responsibility, every opportunity an obligation, every possession, a duty.” – John D. Rockefeller
What does it mean to be a child? What does it mean to be childish? What does it mean to be child-like?
What does it mean to be a parent? What responsibilities should a child have? What responsibilities should a parent have?
Most people agree that a baby is not responsible for anything. Parents take care of babies. Babies can’t take care of much of anything. They can’t take care of anyone else. And most people agree that teens do have some responsibilities. They need to take care of some things. They have some chores to do. They need to help with some things.
So, what happens as children grow from being babies to being teens? How do they learn to be responsible? It doesn’t happen overnight. How do parents help them learn? How do parents learn to do less? How do children learn to do more?
Studies Show That…
Responsibility is a mix of two things. It is something you get to do along with something you have to do. It is both a privilege and a burden. Parenting is a responsibility. You get to take care of your children. You get to make decisions about your children. But you have to meet the children’s needs. And you have to take care of the children. Sometimes parents do not take care of the children. Then they lose the right to take care of the children. Responsibilities and rights go together.
Most parents want to help their children be responsible. Some parents get confused about how to do that. They try too hard to help their children. Think about the parents who paid huge amounts of money to get their children into college. They helped their children too much by breaking the rules. They didn’t let the children be responsible for themselves.
Other parents are not responsible enough. They let children learn on their own. They might give the children too much responsibility. Maybe those parents make the children responsible before they are ready. The children might need to find their own food. Or they might need to find health care. Those are things that parents are usually responsible for. It is important to find a balance.
People might look at children’s responsibilities in different ways.
- Some people might look at children as “human beings.” As human beings, children have rights. They can take action. They can speak up.
- Other people look at children as incomplete. They are “human becomings.” They are not done yet. They need to be protected. They cannot do things for themselves yet. Adults need to speak up for them.
- Yet other people might see children as both “being” and “becoming.” They have both rights and responsibilities. They are equal to adults in some ways but different.
The equal-but-different approach might be best. Some children know a lot. They can speak up about some things. They are also learning a lot. They are learning to be responsible. But they need support from adults. They need help to become responsible adults.
There is another view that helpful, too. We can give children responsibility. That means we can let them take charge of something. We can grant them some power. Children might call that “fun responsibility.” Or we can make them responsible. That means that we blame them for something after it happens. We say it is their fault. That is not fun responsibility. That is making them responsible after they did something wrong.
It is important to look at different kinds of responsibilities. In one study children listed 5 main types of responsibilities they have:
- Taking care of themselves. This includes dressing themselves, feeding themselves, staying clean, and other self-care. This responsibility changes as children grow.
- Personal morals. Children learn right and wrong. They learn to follow a code of conduct. They learn to follow rules and be responsible for doing things the right way.
- Family responsibilities and daily tasks. Children live in families, and they become responsible for doing chores. They understand that this is part of living with a family.
- School work. There are responsibilities at school, too. Children learn they need to do homework and follow the rules at school.
- Care for others. This responsibility has two sections:
- In the community. Children learn it is important to be a good citizen. This includes helping the people who live around us. It means paying attention to how we affect other people living around us.
- In the natural world. Children also learn it is also important to pay attention to plants and animals. We need to care for the world. We need to pay attention to how we affect the environment.
The list above is very close to the lists that adults write. Many children and adults agree about children’s responsibilities.
Children learn to complete these responsibilities as they grow. Over time, they learn more and more responsibilities.
- Babies can learn to be responsible for their own feelings. They learn that they and their family members are different people. They learn how to self-soothe. That means they learn how to calm down on their own.
- Toddlers and preschoolers can learn some simple chores. They can also learn simple care for others. They also learn to care about the feelings of others.
- School-age children can learn more chores. They also learn school responsibilities. They learn to help the community. They worry about helping friends and later the community.
- Teens take on more responsibilities. Most teens are good at self-care. They do family chores and have school work. They also might have a job for pay. And many teens are responsible for helping the community and the world.
Next Steps For Parents…
Parents can help children learn responsibility. Here are some steps that can be helpful.
- Show children that you are responsible. Do what you say you will do. Be a good role model.
- Point out when children affect other people. This can start with babies. Notice when children make something happen. “You shook the toy and it made a noise!” Or “You pushed the button and the bell rang!” Later you can say, “You followed the rules, and people got along better.” The children learn they have the power to be responsible.
- Give them choices. Start small. Let them choose between just two things at first. Make sure they are real choices. That means that you are willing to live with what they choose. Give more choices as they grow.
- Give children responsibility. Start with simple jobs or chores. Work beside them at first. Make sure they know how to do the job. Later let them choose how to do it. Reward them when they complete the job. Sometimes it is enough reward to say thank you or give them a hug.
- Let children live with the outcomes of their choices. Sometimes they will make mistakes. That is how they learn. They should not be badly hurt. But some mistakes are good tools for learning.
- Step back and let them take the lead. Sometimes they have their own ideas. Listen to them. Let them be responsible. They have their own ideas.
Goals For Parents…
Think about your children. What do you want them to be able to do on their own? When do you want them to depend on you? In some cultures, it is OK for children to depend on parents. In others cultures, it is a problem.
Watch when your child tries something new. You could show your child how to do that new thing. Then stand back and watch. Let your child try it alone. Let your child be responsible. Provide a little help if your child asks for it. There might be mistakes. Help your child, but do not take over.
Do your children have chores? What chores could your children do at home? Have a family meeting and decide who could do which chores. Change chores now and then. That makes the jobs more interesting. Make sure each person knows how to do the assigned chore. Then let that person be responsible. Provide rewards for everyone for completing chores.
Give children responsibility. Do not only make them responsible. Let them take the lead. That will help them grow up.
Bjerke, H. (2011). Children as ‘differently equal’ responsible beings: Norwegian children’s views of responsibility. Childhood, 18(1) 67–80. doi:10.1177/0907568210371987
Fram, M. S., Frongillo, E. A., Jones, S. A., Williams, R. C., Burke, M. P., DeLoach, K. P., & Blake, C. E. (2011, June). Children are aware of food insecurity and take responsibility for managing food resources. The Journal of Nutrition, 141(6), 1114–1119. DOI: 10.3945/jn.110.135988
Ogilvie, A. M. (2006). Balancing act: Child welfare and overindulgence. Children and Youth Service Review, 28(6), 610-619. DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2005.06.010