There comes the point in nearly every child’s development when they want to do things on their own – they want to be independent and test their abilities. Shouts of “I want to do it by myself” can be heard when a caregiver tries to help a toddler zip their jacket or find a particular puzzle piece. This is an important instinct and a vital part of a young child’s physical and emotional development.

Teaching a child about responsibility can help them to feel more empowered and independent; thus improving their overall confidence and self-esteem. Too many parents often try to do everything for their children – not letting them do a thing for themselves because they are in a time crunch or fear a child will not do something correctly. They do not give children the chance to become responsible or show what they are actually capable of doing. Children can and should learn to be responsible from a young age, but it takes the support and patience of caregivers to help them do this. Caregivers, as well, need to learn sometimes to take a step back and not intervene in all of the daily activities of a young child’s life. This can be challenging, but it is so vital for children to begin to take responsibility for their actions and understand how their actions impact others around them.

Below are a few basic tips that may be helpful when trying to teach children (toddler age and up) the general concept of responsibility and help them become the independent little minds and bodies that many so want to be.

  1. Start Early: Children as young as toddlers can begin to take ownership over parts of their daily routines. This can include brushing their teeth, picking out their clothes, throwing away their trash, and putting their toys away when they are done playing. You may want to create a reward system for when your child does what you have asked them to do. Calendars with stars or stickers marking days/times when a child has taken responsibility sometimes work well. Many children do better with positive versus negative feedback.
  2. Nurture Independence: There are many activities that children want to do by themselves, but merely do not know how or are not quite yet physically capable of performing them. If a child says they are thirsty and are capable of getting a cup of water on their own, show them where the cups are and how to do it. This will make the child feel empowered and “big” and also reduce some stress on the parents.
  3. Get Children Involved: Often, caregivers do some daily tasks that could be done by children. Some kids react exceptionally well when you give them a specific task to do – they feel important and part of the team. Parents could ask their children, for example, if they would like to set the table each night for dinner or water the flower outside. Children always feel more confident and empowered when they involved in some of the decision-making, and they will tend to perform better because of it.
  4. Establish Consequences: Youngsters do not just become responsible overnight. Even when they understand that they need to make their bed or put their dirty clothes in the laundry basket they most likely will not always perform their “responsible” duties. Parents should think about laying out consequences if these chores are not fulfilled.
  5. Remain Patient: It can be easier for parents to just do things that their children’s responsibility. Parents need to try not to give in and continue to hold their children to the tasks they are responsible for doing. It can be challenging to do this, but in the long run, the child will be better off for it. They will learn the importance of being counted on and trusted to keep their word – all valuable learnings in the short and long term.

Teaching a child to take responsibility for their actions is a life-long project. By starting early, establishing guidelines, and laying out consequences, parents and caregivers are sure to see results. In the end, children will learn important values and begin to feel more independent and self-assured. As they go off into the real world, these feelings will help to carry them far.

About the Author:

Gladys Ruiz is the Director of Little Children Schoolhouse in Brookline, MA. After more than 10 years working in Early Childhood Education, Gladys opened the Little Children Schoolhouse to provide a nurturing, loving environment—an extension of her student’s home and family life—in Brookline. Pre-K, Preschool and Daycare programs for toddlers and infants include extra activities, such as weekly music, yoga, cooking, science activities, and field trips. Both full day and part-time enrollment are available.