I believe the only way children learn about responsibility is to expect them to be responsible for things that are developmentally appropriate and part of their daily life. The best (and most challenging) is that children as young as 1 can be learn about responsibility and they don’t even know they are learning this skill. I say most challenging because when we look at one year olds we see complete innocence exploring their world. So, here are my ideas:
- 1. Responsibility for the one-year old begins with carrying their own blanket, bottle, or toy. It begins with these youngsters getting their shoes, putting their coats in the designated spot when they come into the house. It really begins with children learning how to pick up their toys and put them in the toy box. I say learning because these little ones have no clue what we’re saying when we say for the first time “O.k., it’s time to pick up the toys and put them away.” So, we have to teach them what this means. Here’s what I do: I take the child’s hands and walk with them to a toy. We pick it up together and then walk back to the toy box and place it inside. When the toy is in the box, I say “You just picked up a toy! Way to go!” and while I’m saying this, I take their hands and give them a quick little belly rub. Then, we go back out to do the same thing. I keep doing this until the child gets the idea of what “picking up the toys” means and the expectations of that statement. When I get a child who wants to fuss, I gently pick them up while holding their hands and “jump” to the toy. From a technical standpoint, this resets their proprioceptive sense and to them they’re having fun.
- 2. Responsibility for the two year old happens with the first time they proclaim “I do.” or they push your hands aside when you try to help them. Now, they get to learn about choices (“You can hold my hand or I can carry you.” The follow up to this is when they don’t want to hold my hand I will say in a nice calm and happy voice, “Oh, I see you want me to carry you.” Then I pick them up right away and start moving out the door or wherever it is I need them to go.) They are so ready and willing to do things on their own and we need to take a deep breath (as long as it’s safe) and let them do. I am reminded of the child who wanted to help mom fold the towels. Mom knew the towels weren’t going to get folded the right way (a.k.a. her way) so she gave her child the dirty towels to fold and child was happy. I have heard from so many moms that this time of life is the most difficult because for the first year mom had to do everything for her baby and the transition from dependence to independence can be rather challenging.
- 3. Responsibility for the 3 year old begins with dressing, walking, and their bedroom. I see so many 3 (and 4) year olds being carried from the car to the store or wherever they are entering and the reality is responsibility begins when children realize they are old enough to walk under their own power. I realize there are times that safety requires the child to be carried and whenever possible, put the child down and let them walk. I have also seen so many children walk into school, stand with their hands held out and wait for mom to take their coat off and hang it up for them. At this age children are very capable of taking off their own coats and hanging it up. (FYI: This is why we take coats out of the adult’s hand and give it to the child to hang up on their own.) As for the bedroom, children are ready to be responsible for keeping their rooms clean and when it’s not, they get to clean it up. They might need help with this when the room is so messy it’s overwhelming. When this happens, help them make a plan. For example, “Let’s pick up all the clothes first. Then, let’s pick up the yellow toys.” I am all in favor of giving children ideas because they are still learning.
- 4. Responsibility with the 3 year old (and older) begins with accountability. When they have a problem to solve, they need to be the ones to solve it; with a little help. I will ask if they want an idea on how to solve a particular problem and most of the time they will agree to hear my suggestions. Then, I’ll say “I knew somebody who sat down and threw a big hissy fit. How’s that going to work? I knew somebody who ran around the room screaming. How’s that going to work? I knew somebody who said ‘Ernie could you please help me put the scale in the box.’ How’s that going to work?” By this time, they will ask me to help and we move on. The importance of “How’s that going to work?” after each suggestion is to get them to think about the consequences of my ideas. I know we’ve all heard this statement “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” I have watched parents tell their child they couldn’t have or do something only to give in moments later and let them have or do. This really sends the wrong message because the child is learning all I need to do is keep bugging mom and dad until I get what I want. Accountability is also seen in the punishment for their actions. For example, mom/dad/grandparent/nanny tells child “If you do this one more time, you’re going to your room.” Child does it one more time and gets sent to their room. As the child is going up the stairs, they say “I promise I’ll never do it again! Please don’t send me to my room.” and the caretaker gives in and lets them stay downstairs. Now, two minutes later child is doing the same behavior and a serious power struggle ensues. I realize that we always want to give children a second chance and it’s so important to carry through with the consequence; whatever that may be.