“When should I begin teaching my child to become responsible?”

Ideally, we begin the teaching with little “pre-lessons” when our children are bitsies. We talk to them as we do our daily activities: washing dishes, making the bed, going shopping etc., telling them what we’re doing and why (when we give the reasons we’re doing a task, we’re helping our children make connections and see the relationships among tasks and decisions, thus helping them to begin learning how life functions – how things “fit” together.

Make what you’re doing into play, for example, as you put away your one-and-a-half year old son’s clothes, give him information by telling him what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Let him “help,” (at this age, they love to help), and when he does, guide by assisting as he attempts the task, encourage by telling him how neatly he folded the wash cloth or his sock, or how helpful it is that he put his shirt into the drawer (even if later, you return to sort things out). The point is you’re laying the foundation for him to develop responsibility by giving information, modeling the task, guiding him as he begins to practice, and encouraging him throughout.

Through these shared learning activities, our children are not the only ones learning. As we parents observe and listen, we’re learning how our child learns, how long she’s able to stay with a task, as well as the ways in which she shows she’s bored or frustrated. In other words, we’re learning how to be the best possible parent for this particular child.

An appropriate time to involve liittles is when it’s time to pick up toys. Following our lesson plan as laid out in Blog #1, here’s a possible scenario with a two year old, but the steps are abbreviated to meet the developmental needs of a two-year-old (no formal learning goal and no consequences given for littles under 3).

  1. Giving Information:  Tell her it’s almost lunch time, so before lunch, “we can start to put the toys on the shelf.”  Giving the reason continues to build those connections mentioned above)/ You set the parameters by showing her the shelf or toy box where the toys go.
  2. Creating activities for “students” to practice learning how to do the task and to solve the problem:  Your child may say an emphatic “no.” In any case make a game of it; “Let’s play a game. I’ll put in a toy and then you take a turn.”
  3. Demonstrating/Modeling:  You toss a toy into the toy box.
  4.  Guiding, Encouraging, Observing, and Listening (to learn everything possible about how s/he learns and how s/he becomes frustrated). Work alongside your child until she’s ready to it on her own. Maybe at first she just stands there staring. You can encourage by saying something like, “What do you think?” If she doesn’t respond, you might say, “Come on, it’s your turn.” If needed, you can always add, “let’s see who can pick up the most toys.” And then, putting her strengths into words: “I’ll bet you can lift that truck right up off the floor and put it on the shelf.” Notice that with all of this, you are ignoring the “no” and redirecting your child’s attention and behavior.
  5. Repeating Everything as often as it takes/Never Giving up: If your child loses interest before the toys are all taken care of, you can describe what s/he accomplished , “Look, you put away 3 toys; good job.” Then the two of you walk away, leaving the rest where they are.

Now, you may be thinking, “But, where are the consequences? And isn’t this teaching him he doesn’t have to finish the job?” Remember, each step in the lesson plan is relevant to the developmental stage of your child. In actuality, you’ve just provided the atmosphere for him to remember the fun he had picking up his toys. He’s just beginning to learn and so are you.

You’ve learned very important information about your child’s frustration tolerance – information that will help you to be a more effective and loving parent; there may have been too many toys for him to handle, or if he got cranky, perhaps he was tired or hungry. So next time, you alter the activity part of the plan by giving him fewer toys at a time – playing the “put away” game whenever new toys are needed, or by starting the cleanup a bit earlier; before he’s tired or hungry. You decide based on what you learn about your child.

This is teaching – and parenting: giving information, demonstrating/modeling, creating an activity for your child to practice the task, guiding, and encouraging, observing and listening, repeating as often as it takes/never giving up, and providing age-appropriate consequences.

While each of these steps is of paramount importance, Number 5 bears examining more deeply. “How often and for how long do we have to go through all these steps?” The long answer is “always,” and “forever.” And to top it all off, the older our children become, the more difficult – and important – the lessons become. This means too, the lessons get harder and harder to teach.

Let’s take a minute and look again at the profession of teaching. When we know that the percentage of teachers who leave the field within the first five years is as high as 17% (almost 1/5) on average, we gain a little perspective on the difficulty of teaching. And these teachers had at least four years of study and an extensive internship to prepare them! Parents have little or no training for being a parent, and parenting is the most important job we’ll ever do.

P.S. For guidance in learning what is developmentally appropriate, you may want to look up resources on line.


One thought on ““When should I begin teaching my child to become responsible?”

  1. R. Botnick

    Adding to your reminder that parenting takes enormous patience is the enormous patience a parent owes himself as she (or he) learns along with her children.


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