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Teaching Children Responsibility

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Chana Heller

Bailing your child out of a difficult situation may not be doing him a favor at all.

I once heard a principal say that he wished he had a dollar for every mother who came to school at 10 a.m. with forgotten lunches, homework and books. "Why are these mothers coming in to rescue their children?" he asked. "Let the children experience what happens naturally when they are irresponsible -- and let the mothers stay out of it!"

I remember the first time my young child forgot his lunch. I didn't live very close to the school. Otherwise, I probably would have brought it. But I heard that it would teach him to be more responsible if I didn't bring it. So all day I worried about how hungry he must be, how difficult it would be for him to concentrate properly, and how mad he would be at me for not bringing it.

He took responsibility and didn't call me to bail him out.

As I drove to pick my son up at the end of the day, I rehearsed my nonchalant "Oh, I'm so sorry you forgot your lunch today." I expected him to burst into the car and angrily ask me why I didn't bring it. Instead, he got into the car and happily chattered with his friends until I couldn't stand the suspense any longer.

"Honey, I'm so sorry you forgot your lunch today."

"Oh, no problem, Mom. Ben gave me half of his peanut butter sandwich and Dan never eats his fruit anyway. I managed."

The scenario was different than what I had expected, but it still reinforced that I had done the right thing. I expected that by going hungry, my son would learn a lesson to remember his lunch. Instead, he found a way to take care of himself. He took responsibility and didn't call me to bail him out.


We all know irresponsible people. Those are the people we don't call when something important needs to get done. We don't want them as our spouses, friends or business partners, either. Irresponsible people are hard to trust.

In order for our children to grow up as fully functioning adults who have successful relationships and careers, we need to teach them responsibility. How do we do this?

For starters, it helps tremendously if children have responsible parents. Are you a role model of responsibility? Ask yourself the following:

· Do I procrastinate, or do I prefer to do things right away?

· Am I on time for meetings/appointments/carpool, or am I usually late?

· Do I keep my word, or do I promise things and not come through?

· Do I spend within my means, or do I tend to run up a big credit card debt?

· When I have a job or project to do, do I give it my all, or am I satisfied with a mediocre effort?


If we are responsible parents, half the battle is won. The other half is helping children follow our footsteps. Here are some practical suggestions:

1) Give children age-appropriate tasks to be responsible for. Let a child do whatever she is capable of doing. As soon as she is able to wash or dress herself, encourage her to do so. Don't do it for her. Add new things to the list as she is able, such as making her bed, washing her own plate, or setting the table. Let her know (in a pleasant way) that everyone is expected to pull his/her weight in the family, and provide plenty of praise for any help you do receive.

Too many tasks can result in failure and destroy motivation.

2) Don't overwhelm a child with too many tasks. Take into account the child's ability and temperament and give her tasks she can be successful at. Success and praise will motivate her to do more. Too many tasks can result in failure and destroy motivation.

3) "Expect" your child to be responsible. I find that whatever we expect from our children is usually a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you give a child a task, you can discuss the acceptable time frame for getting it done. Then let the child take it from there and assume it will get done.

Allow her to complete the task in her own way without hovering over her or constantly reminding her about it. If she doesn't get the task done, see what you can do to help her get organized.

4) Never call a child "irresponsible." That will also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if she does something totally irresponsible, such as going to the movies when she promised to help a friend study for a test, refrain from labeling her. Instead, encourage her to make it up to her friend as soon as possible.

If your child tends to be forgetful, don't make remarks such as "If your head wasn't attached you'd probably forget that, too." Such comments are hurtful and discouraging.

5) Help a child organize her schoolwork. Show a child how to estimate how much time homework will take and to budget accordingly. If necessary, help her make an after-school schedule so she can see how there's enough time to get all her work done, bathe, and still have time to relax or go outside and play.

When children start to have reports to write, discuss in advance how much time will be needed to go to the library and to write the various sections of the report. Help your child break the project into manageable parts and make a plan to get it done.

Homework should be something the child is capable of doing on her own.

6) Don't do it for her. It is surprising to me how many parents get caught in the trap of doing a child's homework (either with her, or for her). An acquaintance remarked how much time it took her each night to sit with her kids as they did their work. Let a child know that her homework is her responsibility, not yours. Homework should be something the child is capable of doing on her own. Of course, all children need some help now and then, and they do like to be tested for spelling or vocabulary. But a parent should not be sitting nightly with a child as she does routine homework. (Children with special learning issues may require more attention.)

7) Let a child take responsibility for her own mistakes. Don't rush in to save her. Shari, age 12, broke the neighbor's window playing ball. She had been asked not to play ball on that side of the house for that very reason. Shari tried to get her parents to foot half the bill for the repair since she was saving money for new roller blades. Shari's parents need to figure out the best solution which will help Shari take responsibility for her mistake, taking into account her temperament and her past history with such situations. There are no hard and fast rules in this case, but letting a child off the hook is usually very counterproductive.

8) Teach a child to manage money. Children should learn not to spend more money than they have -- whether it's allowance, gift money from grandparents, or money earned from a job. Don't let your child think it is okay to borrow when she wants something and pay it back when she gets more money. This is poor training. Encourage her to wait until she has enough of her own funds and not to go into debt.

Children who have jobs should learn to set some aside for charity and to put some aside for savings. The rest can be used at the child's discretion. As a child gets older, discuss with her how you manage your money and what types of savings accounts and other investment plans people use.

9) Encourage your child to take on volunteer work, or an after-school or summer job. These are settings in which children need to be on time, to be pleasant despite how they may be feeling, and to make sure their duties get done. They are great learning experiences in terms of responsibility.


All children need to learn to be responsible. Jewish children, in particular, need to be responsible to fulfill the wonderfully uplifting Torah traditions. Keeping Kosher, celebrating Shabbat, giving a tenth of their money to charity, getting up to pray in the morning, monitoring their speech for gossip, and learning Torah are just a few of the mitzvot that Jewish children can observe.

Boys who wear kippot know they are being watched and can make a good or bad name for the Jewish people.

They count how many hours have passed since they have eaten meat before eating dairy. They are taught to take a daily accounting of their behavior to see how they treated others and fulfilled their responsibilities. Boys wear kippot on their heads which publicizes their Jewish identity. They know they are being watched and can make a good or bad name for the Jewish people. Now that is a tremendous responsibility!

Life is not a bill of rights; it is a bill of responsibilities. If children grow up without a sense of responsibility and are unable to fulfill the myriad obligations of society, they are liable to become depressed and withdrawn. Who wants to be part of something he cannot be successful at?

On the other hand, if children are taught to welcome responsibility, they can approach life with an energetic eagerness to grow and accomplish.

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