Personal responsibility is taught by role modelling and conscious instruction.
Personal responsibility involves being aware that we are making choices, and accepting the consequences that result. Children make choices every day, and it is imperative that they see the connection between the choice and the consequence. When children are aware that they have choices, they come to appreciate the power that lies within them to shape their lives. Children who learn to be personally responsible will feel powerful and capable, and are more likely to be honest, self-aware and thoughtful. From the moment our children are born, we can teach them how to be personally responsible via two main avenues: what we do (role modelling) and what we say.
Do What I do:
Children learn an enormous amount by watching their parents. If they see you take responsibility for your choices and behaviours, they are more likely to do the same. Do you believe that you are directing the course of your own life? Do you own up to the mistakes you make? Do you acknowledge and ‘own’ your feelings and emotional reactions?
Choose Your Own Words Responsibly:
One of the best ways to teach personal responsibility is by using the language of choices and consequences explicitly. When children do something that we do not want them to do, we can explain to them that they have made a poor choice, and outline the consequence that will occur as a result. Applying this language to our own experiences, out loud in front of our children, helps them see that these ‘rules’ apply to everyone.
Some concrete ways to teach personal responsibility.
Age: 2 to 6 years.
- Let them make age appropriate choices. Children at this age should be given the opportunity to choose whether to wear the red or blue shirt, and whether they want eggs or cereal for breakfast. Use your language to reinforce the fact that they are making a choice.
- Let them feel the consequences of their choices. If your child chooses to throw their toy, explain that they can no longer play with that toy and put it away. Do not give in to nagging and crying. Calmly point out to the child that they chose to not play with that toy by choosing to throw it. Help the child see the connection between their choice and the resulting consequence.
- Encourage them to make amends. As the words “I’m sorry” can sometimes be meaningless to small children, encourage children to demonstrate their apology by returning what was snatched or cleaning up what was broken. Help children solve the problem together and find the words and actions needed to put things right. Offer positive and specific praise (“Thank you for giving Jenny back her toy. That was a good choice you made”.)
Age: 7 to 12 years.
- Teach them to understand their emotions. Children who are ‘emotionally literate’ are more likely to identify, monitor and control their emotional and behavioural reactions. In doing so, these children are better able to realise the power they have to control and adjust how they are feeling, enabling them to respond to situations well, and acknowledge and accept when they have behaved poorly. Increased self-awareness leads to increases in personal responsibility.
- Let them experience moderate levels of discomfort. Children need to develop mastery over their environment to feel that they are powerful and can direct their lives. If we step in too quickly to do for them the things that they struggle with, they learn to expect others to save them when things get hard. This undermines their sense of competence and willingness to take responsibility, and leads them to start blaming others for the difficulties they may face in their day to day lives.
Age: 13 years and above.
- Help them use their own money wisely. Offer to pay half of a child’s desired clothes/technology purchase, as long as they make up the other half of the cost with their own money. This is a good way to teach your child to be responsible with their (and your) money, and encourage them to reflect on what they really value. Children soon learn that what they want costs ‘real’ money, getting money requires ‘real’ effort, and the amount of money they have is finite. When their money is gone the money is gone, and children learn that their choices have consequences, and the consequences stick.
- Allow them to co-create the rules. Adolescence is a time when children desire greater independence. Discussing with your teen the rules that THEY feel should be applied to them, and why they feel those rules matter, allows them to take greater responsibility for themselves. In addition, asking them to decide on the consequences that should be applied if they do not meet their responsibilities is a good way of helping them see that they are actively choosing their choices, and as such they are choosing the consequences. Encouraging your teen to work with you on choosing the parameters by which they will be supported and held to account means offering them the opportunity to take greater responsibility for themselves as they walk steadily toward increased independence.
Author: Dr Amanda Mergler
Dr Amanda Mergler is a Lecturer in Educational Psychology at Queensland University of Technology.
This article was published in Issue 11 of our print magazine, August/September 2015.