How and Why to Teach Kids the Value of Responsibility

By Jessica Wolstenholm

The next customer in my checkout line was buying mostly cleaning supplies. Had I not made small talk with her, our conversation would have been forgettable like many others. But, she confessed something to me that I think of often.

She declared it was too much work to train her child to clean up after himself and help around their home. She said, “It’s so much easier to do it myself” and even as a teenager, I was shocked.

Twenty-five years and four children later, my shock over her statement has turned to empathy. I get it. It is exhausting training children to be responsible. It’s so much easier to hover over my children and do the chores myself to meet my expectations.

But each time I read verses like Proverbs 22:6 commanding me to train up my children, I am reminded that choosing the easy over the hard is disobedience. My job as a parent is to impress upon my children a God who loves them (Deuteronomy 6:7) as well as to prepare their hearts to love God through obedience and in taking responsibility for the life he graciously gives.

Teach your child how to be responsible and why it is important with these principles as a guide:

Train with the End in Mind

One website defines responsibility as “involving personal accountability or [the] ability to act without guidance….”  What kind of adult do you want your child to grow into? Take a moment to sit down with your spouse or a trusted friend to make a list of the characteristics you desire your children to have upon high school graduation. How would these characteristics be exhibited in a teenager? For example, if you desire the child as a teen to diligently remember to take out the trash each week, what do you need to do now to develop these characteristics? Also, lead by example and demonstrate to the child how to set reminders using a post-it note or smartphone. Whatever the chore or goal, you are the best teacher he has to help him grow into a responsible adult.

All Are Responsible

Thinking about the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:15 says “to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.”  This verse is such a great reminder that while the amount of responsibility varied, responsibility was given to all.

Responsibility According to Ability

How easy it is to go to extremes: either giving the child responsibility above their ability or requiring no responsibility at all. Matthew 25:15 also reminds us that responsibility needs to match the child’s ability. Just as one wouldn’t ask a preschooler to do the dishes, only requiring a teenager to make their bed daily does not align responsibility with ability. Also, keep the child’s ability in mind before judging the effort.

Teach Responsibility When Young

Teaching responsibility is best started at a very young age when children are willing to help and learn from mimicking. Putting clothes in a hamper or picking up toys before getting out another can be a great place to begin.  A solid foundation is built as the child learns to be responsible for what he owns and uses.  (See a list of age appropriate chores here.)

Training Comes First

Before you can expect a child to perform a certain job, the child must be taught how to do the task. Oftentimes when I am tempted to express frustration when a chore isn’t done properly, I realize that I haven’t taken the time to adequately train my child in the first place. One example is a lumpy bed. I can’t expect a preschooler to pull up the sheet before the comforter if I have never taught them how to do this.

Gradually Increase Responsibility

By beginning to teach chores or duties when the child is young, you can also slowly add additional responsibilities. While a 2-year-old child is responsible for putting clothes in the laundry hamper, a 6-year-old may be responsible for folding and hanging up clothing. Then, a 12-year-old is responsible for sorting and filling the washer with dirty clothes and moving these to the dryer or clothesline.

Consistency is Key

Parenting is not for the faint of heart. Just as Paul compares the Christian life to a race (Hebrews 12:1-3), I believe parenting is a marathon as well. Whether you use coins, candy, a sticker chart, or a high five to reward, consistency is the most important part of training a child. While you probably won’t see immediate success, don’t give up!

Responsibility Makes a Child Feel Needed

I greatly respect the “Love and Logic” advice parenting expert Jim Fay shares on teaching responsibility. He says even kids need to feel needed and to know that they’re making a contribution, “but they can’t feel that way if they don’t have chores and make contributions to the family.”  There is more to teaching responsibility than simply getting a job done. Expressing how important a child’s contribution to the family is can go a long way to imparting the importance of responsibility.

When It’s Not Fair

Oftentimes my children are not as eager to learn responsibility as I would like. Observing the expectations (or lack thereof) of their peers, I would be frustrated too. But we continually quote Colossians 3:23-24, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” Being responsible isn’t easy, but when we remember for whom we are working, it puts everything into perspective.

Shower with Praise

The old saying, ”You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” applies here. Children thrive on praise so in teaching them responsibility, shower the child with honest praise.

Thinking back to that mom in my grocery store checkout line, I have no idea what came of her cleaning products or her son. But I do know that there will be a time when I am held responsible for what I have taught my children and I pray that making them responsible is something I have done well.