Teaching Responsible Behavior

Every family defines what constitutes responsible behavior differently, depending on the values the parents hold. However, it is taught the same way in every family — by example and instruction.

Teaching the Preverbal Child

With a child too young to be instructed verbally, you must show how you want things done by using yourself as an example. Consider teaching a two-year-old “responsible” eating behavior. You want her to learn to use a spoon, not just her hands. So, as much as possible, you make it an imitation game.

First, you put the spoon of food in your mouth and smile. Then the little child attempts to do the same and laughs with delight as this game of imitation builds between you. As the repetition goes on, your little child learns something serious from play.

Don't punish undesirable behavior; interrupt it instead. If she throws down the spoon and tries to scoop up food in her hand, redirect her attention with some other activity or toy. Then try the eating-with-the-spoon game again, rewarding desirable behavior with a smile and a cheer when it occurs.


Though parents often begin by using mostly positive responses to shape a young child's behavior, they typically resort to more negative responses as the child grows older. But rewarding the positive works better than punishing the negative, no matter the child's age.

Dressing oneself, hygiene, picking up and cleaning up and putting back are all taught in the same way with the preverbal child. You keep instruction light and playful; you make it a game. And you use very little negative correction, and then only of the most gentle kind.

When the child hits you in the face because she feels angry at being put to bed, clasp the child's hands, look the child in the eyes, and seriously (not angrily) repeat the word “No” while shaking your head. Then you hug her and smile and put her down.

If she hits you again in anger, repeat the corrective process because, as an adult, you understand that children do not learn from just one episode of instruction. Over time she will come to understand that the headshake “No” means that you don't want her to repeat what she just did.

Obviously, you do not want to hit a child for hitting, or yell at a child to stop yelling, because that only teaches by example the behavior you wish to stop.

A Model for Teaching Responsible Behavior

One way for parents to organize their instruction of responsible behavior is around the concept of care. Think about a four-part curriculum that you want to teach. Some suggested topics are included in each part to get you started adding more.

  • Caring for self: maintaining one's own health and hygiene, care of space and possessions, cleaning up and picking up after oneself, providing for and protecting oneself.

  • Caring for family others: showing consideration, sharing what one has, helping others out, being supportive in hard times.

  • Caring for the family unit: contributing to chores and services, compromising for the larger good, communicating about common concerns.

  • Caring for outside others: respecting rights of others, obeying social rules, concern for human welfare, volunteering community help.

Coming up with categories of responsible behavior is the first step. Second is specifying the actions that will put those categories into actual operation. And third is having the child repeat these actions often enough so that responsible behavior becomes a habit. So when it comes to caring for outside others, having practiced this on a regular basis in the family, it seems only natural to your child to spend some volunteer time each month helping others less fortunate than herself.


One way to reinforce the importance of responsible behaviors is to get your child involved with other people — good friends, extended family, or church, for example — who practice your values of responsible conduct.

Supporting Family Needs

A final way you teach your child responsible behavior is to depend on him or her to help fulfill family needs. The message is, “To function as a family we need your participation, contribution, and help.” For the family to function well as a whole, each member must take some share in its support. Children who are expected to perform some useful tasks to support the family not only develop self-esteem from being valued for the service they provide, but they also become more invested in family itself because of the contribution they have made.

The family that invests in family is one in which a host of responsible behaviors are taught by doing many things together. Such a family may talk together, problem solve together, do household chores together, do family projects together, play together, go to worship together, prepare special occasions together, and pull together in mutual support in times of crisis. Responsible behavior shared by everyone forms the core of a healthy family life.

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