Today’s children, in this modern world of technology and convenience, are at a high risk of becoming entitled brats who do not understand things like delayed gratification, hard work, or how their actions affect others. I am determined not to allow my kids to fall into this trap.
I value things like a home cooked meal, handwritten notes, and relationships built on shared experience and in-person conversations. As a mom, it is so important to my that my children learn that easy doesn’t always mean better, that putting time and work into something always adds to its value and your appreciation for it.
How to Teach Small Children Responsibility
So how do you teach such a complex lesson to a two, three, or four year old? I think it starts small and with things they understand. It starts with teaching them to work for a goal and how good it feels to accomplish that goal. Just last week, my son had his first swim lesson. He was scared because it was his first time in a pool without his floaties (even though I was with him the whole time), but, with some strong encouragement, he powered through and was having a blast by the end of the class. Afterward the class ended, I praised him for how brave he was and the two of us celebrated by hitting up our favorite restaurant for a piece of chocolate cake and a root beer.
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Responsibility is a complex idea. It means different things in different situations. You are responsible for the things you own, for your assigned duties and actions, and for respecting your promises and boundaries within relationships.
Whoa! We are supposed to teach all that to preschoolers?!
It’s easier if we break it down.
Responsibility with Things
This might be the easiest way to teach small children responsibility.
My son, who is three and a half years old, is responsible for putting his toys away both before nap time and before bed time. He is also responsible for putting his dirty dishes in the sink after meals and ensuring his dirty clothes make it to the hamper as he sheds them.
When he does these things, he gets extras like one more book before bed, and sometimes an ice cream if he does an exceptionally good job. In contrast, if he is feeling particularly stubborn one day and refuses to take care of his things, he might find that his things go missing. If he asks where his favorite car is, I simply tell him that since he didn’t take care of it, he won’t be able to have it until the next day.
Start this practice early. My daughter is 15 months old. She doesn’t speak in any language that can be understood, but she does seem to understand what I am saying to her. She understands what it means when Mommy tells her to put a toy away, so I tell her, and she does.
Responsibility for your Actions
Again, responsibility is all about ownership and consequence. The things you do are in your control – your decision, and you have to accept the consequences for those actions. One example of this is when a child intentionally makes a mess or makes a mess because of carelessness.
If your child is like mine, he may do things like tipping over his milk to see what happens at the dinner table. I aim to teach him that what happens is him having to clean up that mess and go without dessert that evening.
Responsibility to People
This one I think we don’t fully learn until adulthood. For me, it was when I became a parent. Yes, you are responsible for your things and for your actions. But who are you responsible to? As a member of your community, you are responsible as a citizen. You are responsible to your boss as an employee. And then there is the ultimate responsibility, that of a parent to a child.
Our attitudes, words, and actions have weight.
My son and I visited the beach by his grandparents’ house yesterday, and as he played in the water, this thought occured to me: My little three year old boy is so small, seeming ever smaller when compared with the vast body of Lake Erie. But his toe still creates a ripple. No matter how small his role that lake, his actions still create an effect that is very visible in what is immediately surrounding him.
Families are where we learn this lesson as children. We teach this by talking, a lot, to our children about thoughts and feelings. About how our roles within the family unit come with certain responsibilities, and the positive and negative consequences that come from how we take those responsibilities on.
Just as important is recognizing your children’s emotional expression and helping them why they feel a certain way.
Consistency, Routine, and Language Kids Understand
It is much easier to just pick up the toys myself, rather than wait the fifteen minutes or more that it sometimes takes my son to do it. Some days, I am tired and frustrated. But unless something is taught with consistency, kids will not accept it as the way things are.
More than that, make your lessons in responsibility part of your daily routine. Do things like cleaning up toys at the same time every day, and have the same consequences and rewards.
And finally, talk to them about it. Talk to them about everything, using examples they understand, building on their understanding of something familiar to them. When giving a consequence, talk your child through why they are receiving that consequence and how they can change it next time. Use the same consequence and language each time so that your child understands responsibility as part of the way the world works.
My favorite book about discipline has been Dr. Sal Severe’s How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too! It’s a quick read and full of practical advice that you can start implementing today.
I am also a huge fan of Dr. Sears. His perspective has always resonated with me in meeting babies and children where they are and fulfilling their needs as a means of solving problems like sleep, nutrition, and behavior. The Discipline Book has tons of advice and the scientific reasoning behind it to support you as your teach your child responsibility and discipline.