Birth to 2

Infants have no responsibility except to survive, expressed instinctively in crying to be fed and to have their physical needs met.

As children approach age two, they can begin to be asked to take responsibility for their own behavior -- to sit quietly at a restaurant, for example, and to hold back from running into the street. But their natural impulsiveness and their urge to experiment work against this, so they need constant adult supervision.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Give your toddler an easy chore, like clearing non-breakable items from the table. Praise her for being responsible.
  • Allow your child simple choices, such as deciding between two T-shirts while getting dressed in the morning.
  • What's the Goal?

    To introduce the idea of responsibility and to give kids experience in decision-making.

    3 to 4

    Consistency is important for preschoolers. They are starting to internalize rules as a way of gaining understanding of the world. Often they try to apply the rules of conduct they learn at preschool to the home as well--for instance, informing parents that they have to line up for the bathroom or cut apples into quarters. They are motivated by adult approval and want to be part of everything grown-up.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Add more simple tasks, such as cleaning up toys at the end of play and putting clothes in the hamper.
  • Give your child a step stool, fun soap, and a colorful towel to encourage him to wash up himself.
  • What's the Goal?

    To establish good habits of self-care and to let children know that their contribution helps the family.

    5 to 7

    Children this age are impelled by a mixture of motives--the need to gain adult approval and avoid punishment, as well as a budding sense of responsibility. Their increased impulse control helps them delay gratification and participate in many more tasks that are important to the family. In the classroom, they have the self-discipline to complete worksheets or read or write independently.

    Nevertheless, kids this age are still building skills. Parents can't simply assign them a chore and expect it to be done. Children need help and practice so they can learn from mistakes without feeling ashamed.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Organize their books and clothes on low shelves, so they can reach them on their own.
  • When your child starts getting homework, make a rule about "homework first, TV after." Sit nearby and do your own work or reading.
  • Start an allowance and help your child budget and save for special items.
  • What's the Goal?

    To help your child see that you value work; to build her competence and show her the importance of putting "first things first.

    8 to 10

    Children in later elementary school generally have the cognitive ability to plan what needs to be done and generate solutions. This kind of problem-solving helps kids become accountable for their actions.

    At school and in religious education, children start to grasp that they have a responsibility to groups to which they belong--family, school, community, team, and house of worship. Increasingly, they can be asked to take responsibility for others--which may mean walking a younger child to her classroom, helping a classmate with a math problem, or bringing in cookies for a Sunday school bake sale.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Don't do tasks for your child that she can do for herself. Responsibility is linked to feeling competent.
  • If kids cross a moral line--if they harm property or hurt someone's feelings, for example--ask them how they can make amends rather than impose a punishment.
  • Choose a pet with your child, or give him more responsibility for the pet you have.
  • What's the Goal?

    To hold kids accountable and emphasize the value of caring for other living things.

    11 to 13

    Compared with younger kids, preteens are faced with greater expectations for responsibility. School assignments and tests require them to crack the books for longer periods, and parents may want them to play a more mature role in the family, including baby-sitting younger siblings or fixing their own meals.

    Kids may start to be moody and uncooperative. Hormonal changes, relationships with friends, and difficulties at school are the most common reasons.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Be aware of pressures on your child and take time to talk them through. See if she needs some specific help or if she just needs to vent.
  • Help him set priorities. If he has tests and projects due, have him make a schedule that breaks the steps down into doable chunks.
  • Link privileges to responsibilities. If she wants to go to the mall with friends, she needs to abide by your curfew.
  • What's the Goal?

    To show that part of becoming a responsible person is being able to meet obligations even when we're not in the mood.

    14 to 18

    To parents, teenagers may seem to shirk their responsibilities. They may talk on the phone for hours instead of shoveling the driveway, or pore over their English paper while giving short shrift to other subjects. It helps to understand that teenagers face competing demands, and that they are trying to juggle responsibilities. For instance, the girl running up the phone bill may feel a responsibility to be supportive to her friend on the other end of the line.

    Getting a driver's license-a milestone parents dread and most kids look forward to as a step toward freedom-often brings with it an upsurge in responsible behavior, as teens realize the life-and-death power they now possess. It also enlarges the scope of chores that teens can be asked to do-such as picking up a younger sibling or going grocery-shopping.

    At this age, kids starting making decisions about college and careers that have a lifelong impact-their grades and activities can affect what doors will be open to them. Money and social concerns are also primary.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Teach your child basic life skills, such as grocery shopping, cooking, budgeting, and doing laundry, and other household tasks.
  • Support kids' busy schedule of school, sports, volunteering, and part-time work by cheering them on; try to arrange family meals around their schedule.
  • Look for ways to let your teen know that you find him trustworthy. If he breaks a rule, tell him, "We need to find a way for you to earn back our trust."
  • What's the Goal?

    To gradually prepare your teen for independence by allowing him to set his own goals and to take the reins.

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