Teaching Responsibility

Responsibility is one of the hardest skills for parents to teach. The decisions about when to let go and what decisions to turn over to the child can be complicated. Teaching responsibility is scary for parents to do since it requires turning over some freedom of choice to their son or daughter, who is now at risk from consequences of his or her own independent decision-making.

Let go too early, and the child may be at risk of immature judgment. For example, excited and overconfident from learning to balance on a bike, believing that is all there is to riding, the child takes off down the street, gathers speed, and crashes into a parked car because steering is not yet under control. The parents let go too soon. More preparation was required. At worst, too much parental letting go creates permissiveness that offers no protection for the child.

Let go too late, and the child can be at risk of inexperienced decision-making. For example, by waiting until the late adolescent is older before teaching how to manage credit, the young person blithely overcharges a credit card in college and gets into serious debt. The parents held on, held back, and put off an important experience too long. That's the problem with protection — it offers no preparation.


Since responsibility requires taking risks as your child tries to handle a new freedom on his own, first determine what kind of risk-taker your child is — very bold or very cautious. You may have to restrain the bold child with caution and embolden the cautious child with encouragement.

Steps in Turning Over Responsibility

Teaching responsibility in a responsible fashion is labor intensive.

  • You show the child how to do something by explanation and demonstration.

  • You help the child to do it with your advice and support.

  • You monitor how the child does it with supervision.

  • You let the child practice it on his or her own within limits suitable for a beginner.

  • You turn over responsibility by letting go, letting the child do it independently.

  • You hold the child accountable for good and bad consequences, reviewing the lessons that both kinds of consequences have to teach.

Deciding What Freedoms to Turn Over and When

There are two visions of what are appropriate responsibilities for a child to learn — the parent's and the child's. Often the child considers the responsibilities she wants to be desirable freedoms of self-determination, and yet considers the responsibilities parents want her to have as unfair burdens of work.

At the age of six, your daughter may believe she should have freedom to decide what she wants to eat. At the age of 10, she may believe she should have freedom to decide what she watches on TV. At the age of 12, she may believe she should have freedom to decide whether or not to do homework. “I'm responsible enough to make my own choices!” The problem is, however, none of these are freedoms her parents are willing to turn over, because although the child isn't bothered by the consequences of inadequate diet, televised sex and violence, and school failure, her parents definitely are.

What you can propose are other freedoms that you want the child to responsibly assume. At age six, you want your child to take responsibility for keeping track of personal belongings so you don't have to keep checking. At age 10, your child should be taking responsibility for cleaning up after and feeding the dog so you don't have to keep reminding. At age 12, your child should be ready for the responsibility of keeping his or her bedroom clean so you don't have to keep nagging. Yet none of these responsibilities holds much allure for your child.

So to begin with, parents have to decide what freedoms they are willing to turn over, at what age, in order to create the opportunity for learning what responsibilities.

As an exercise, to get started thinking about when you would want your child to learn different areas of responsibility, order the following list of responsibilities from what you would be inclined to let go first to what you would be inclined to let go last.

____ Choosing what to eat

____ Choosing when to go to bed

____ Choosing what to watch on TV

____ Choosing where to surf on the Internet

____ Choosing what to wear to school

____ Choosing when to start homework

____ Choosing how to spend money

____ Choosing whom to have as friends

____ Choosing how often to bathe

____ Choosing how to care for possessions

____ Choosing how long to talk on the phone

There is no “right” or “wrong” for which of these areas of choice to let go of first or last in order to teach responsibility; but it is definitely your responsibility to come up with an order that fits your parenting values and objectives.


Don't turn over any freedom where you are unwilling to let your child learn from what bad consequences from bad choices would have to teach.

Separating Responsibility as Childhood Ends

A child usually enters early adolescence somewhere between the ages of nine and 13 as he or she becomes more discontented with being defined and treated as a “child.” Participating in older-age activities and experiencing the larger world outside of family now become more important as the young person begins to push against and pull away from parents for more freedom to grow.

From this critical growth point onward, the great protector for the child is going to be the power of responsibility the boy or girl possesses to make mindful and unimpulsive decisions as he or she experiments with new and different experiences. To safeguard their early adolescent, parents need to begin turning over three kinds of self-management responsibilities — for facing consequences of bad decisions, for recovering from unhappiness, and for solving problems.

Now that he's an adolescent and is pushing for more independence, parents need to be sure he is given the chance to learn more self-management responsibility. So, rather than rescue the child from the consequences of a bad decision, parents should help the early adolescent to take more responsibility for dealing with the outcomes of his or her actions. “We think you need to pay for what you did.”

Rather than provide some fix for the child's unhappiness, parents should enable the early adolescent to take more responsibility for recovering his or her own emotional well-being. “We want you to develop ways to cheer yourself back up when you are feeling down.” And rather than jumping in and solving the child's problems, parents should encourage the early adolescent to take more responsibility for figuring out his or her own problems. “We want you to think out some possible solutions before we add any of our own.”

This is not to say that in all three cases parents totally back out of the early adolescent's life, only that they start doing more letting go than they did before.

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