Training Children in Responsibility
by Joy Marie Dunlap
Character training is, in some senses, the more important focus of a
good home school. Our children need adequate knowledge, but even more,
they need good character to prepare them for adult life. Responsibility
is one of the most important elements of good character.
Laying the Foundation
Responsibility begins with a mentality, or set of presuppositions, which
you pass on to your child unconsciously.
If your world view is that children should only play and please
themselves throughout their childhood, they are sure to live down to
that expectation and complain about their chores.
If your world view is that children can not help but be selfish and
unhelpful, that expectation becomes clear to the child, whether or not
you say it right out.
The surest way to raise selfish, rude, contentious, unhelpful children
is to have low expectations.
If, on the other hand, your world view is that everyone should
contribute to the well-being of all, no matter their ages and ability
levels, your actions, attitudes, and expectations will reflect that, and
your young child will begin to learn the value of responsibility.
While it is never too late until your children leave home, it is a good
idea to start young while your children are preschoolers. When our
oldest was a toddler and we were expecting a new baby, I told him that
we would have fun taking care of the baby together. He became excited
about the idea of being a partner with me in this special project, and
when the baby arrived, he adjusted well.
Our son helped me care for his younger brother by bringing me clean
diapers, putting the baby's dirty clothes in the hamper, and picking up
toys that Baby dropped. I taught him by example, inclusion, and positive
communication that it is a privilege to work together and serve.
Make Work Seem Fun
Toddlers and preschoolers believe whatever you say, so this is a good
time to teach them that work can be fun. I made a game of putting away
toys and groceries. I played with our toddlers and they worked with me.
We did everything together. Now, as teens, they are hard-working and
extremely helpful around the house and yard.
Be careful what you say around your children, even at an early age. If
they hear, "Mommy would like to have fun with you, but she has to work
right now," in a tone that implies that you dislike the work but love
the play, you are communicating the message that work is an undesirable
activity. Do not communicate that. Instead, tell the child, "You can
have fun with me while I sweep the floor. You could hold the dustpan for
me. Wouldn't that be fun?"
Do not let work sound like a negative in front of your children if you
can possibly help it. If you have difficulty feeling enthusiasm for
work, pray for the enthusiasm and positive feeling you need to pass on
to your children.
Work is a privilege. Just imagine that you are quadriplegic or
imprisoned in a cell for your faith or have a hurt back and can't work.
Imagine your frustration at not being able to do all that you are now
able to do. (As a disabled person, this is not just a matter of
imagination for me. I appreciate more what I can do because of what I
have learned from what I cannot do.)
If you imagine these scenarios, both very real for some people in the
world today, you will begin to understand what a privilege it is to have
a healthy body which is able to do physical work and do it well. With
this renewed mentality, you will be better able to pass on to your
children an enthusiasm for physical work and responsibility.
Do Work Together
I use the word "we" in training our children. I tell them things such
as, "We always put our dirty clothes in the hamper, like this, instead
of on the floor." Young children like to be included more than anything
else, and using the word "we" encourages them in right behavior without
lecturing. Instead of saying, "Clean up your room!" to a young child, I
always said, "Let's clean up your room together."
Young children learn best to work and develop responsible habits in
company with you. They learn best by imitation in an immediate context.
They feel loved when you do things with them and come to associate work
and responsibility with your love in this way. This gives them a more
positive attitude toward work later on when they have to do their chores
without your help.
Let preschoolers make some choices, but do not let them always have a
choice. There are times when a child needs to hear, "This is what you
are going to do."
It is good to word things inclusively and lovingly, but do not make the
mistake of training your child in willfulness by failing to make him do
what he does not feel like doing. An important part of responsibility is
learning to do what needs to be done no matter how you feel. Be careful
to build a good foundation in the early years, a foundation of both
loving nurture and firmness.
Build a Ramp of Responsibility
One mistake parents often make is to let their young child only play
until he reaches a "responsible" age. Then suddenly there is all this
work to do and responsibilities to fulfill, and it is a shock to the
system. Help your child gradually take on more work and responsibility.
A baby begins with no work or responsibility whatever, and a 19- to
24-year-old finds himself working 40 hours a week to support himself.
Your job is to build a ramp of gradually increasing responsibility for
A young adult who is used to increasing levels of responsibility will
have an easier time adjusting to full-time work.
Begin in the preschool years with tasks such as putting clothes in the
hamper and picking up the toys, and add tasks the child can do all along
the way. A 6-year-old can set the table every day, make his bed, help
dry dishes, fill a pet's dish, clear his own dishes after a meal, and
fold and put away his own laundry with a little help.
Gradually add new responsibilities every year until, as an older teen,
your child does the laundry and dishes (perhaps taking turns with
siblings), mows the lawn, trims the bushes, baby-sits younger siblings
periodically, and maybe even works a part-time job or does some
It is unfair to pamper a teen's slothful tendencies, leaving him with
little more to do than dishes two nights a week and taking out the
trash. When he hits a 40-hour work week (or full-time college plus a
part-time job) upon graduation, he will be totally unprepared for the
discipline of hard work which is necessary for a productive and
successful adult life. Work and responsibility should be built up
gradually throughout the childhood and teen years.
Use Positive and Negative Incentives Together
We are currently using a system of negative and positive incentives to
help our children learn self-discipline. I did not want to just pay the
children for what they do, lest they come to avoid work unless they get
something from it.
I want our children to understand work to be a moral imperative, to help
earn our keep by taking part in cleaning the messes we had a part in
creating, whether dishes or laundry or something else. I don't want them
to work only when they feel like earning a little more cash, and I don't
want them to neglect other personal responsibilities and do only the
chores we pay for.
With these concerns in mind, I worked out a system whereby the children
are paid a small amount for each of a couple dozen basic
responsibilities, including personal hygiene, cleaning their own rooms,
Scripture memorization, school responsibilities, and chores, indoors and
out, These are listed in one column on a photocopied page and a debit
list in another column.
The debit side lists responsibility infractions such as a messy room,
neglected chores, unfinished school assignments, tools left out in the
rain, and getting behind on the laundry (in the case of our teens).
Fines are listed, and are enough to be a healthy deterrent for
The children stand to gain if they are responsible and to lose money if
they are neglectful. The debit column is a reminder that their chores
are responsibilities they ought to do always, not just options in case
they happen to be in the mood for more pocket money.
Another system that can be used is a box in which things that are left
lying around the house are confiscated and must be earned back. Things
can be earned back with money or extra chores, and the money amounts
involved can be large or small, as long as there is not a large
discrepancy between the amount the children have the opportunity to earn
(including outside the home for teens) and the amount they stand to lose
by their careless neglect.
Alternatively, you could use a point system to keep track of how
regularly each child brushed his teeth, made his bed, and did his
schoolwork and chores with the reward of a very special schooling item,
such as an art set or special book or game, once they earn a preset
number of points. Our children earned their own special picture wall
calendars last year in this way.
You may have to change incentive systems from time to time. In my own
experience, new systems of incentives work wonderfully, but get old
after a while and lose their appeal. Systems that include both positive
and negative incentives emphasize responsibility in all areas of life.
I also used a system I call "Earn Me" with good success. I tape a coin
to an index card and place it on or beside a problem area of the house.
I print on the card a statement like, "Earn me by thoroughly dusting
this shelf." The child who takes the initiative to do the job and do it
right gets the coin. The amount fits the size of the task from penny to
silver dollar. (We have never had an "Earn Me" coin disappear without
the task being done.)
Create an Environment That Is Conducive To Responsibility
We set aside special quiet hours during the early part of the day to
encourage diligent study habits in our children. No loud or active play
is allowed during this time, and no one is to have free time (other than
a reasonable break) until his studies are done.
In the afternoons, we encourage responsibility by doing chores together,
sometimes listening to classical music while the chores are done.
Sometimes the children like to sing while they do the dishes. Other
times their Papa or I tell a story while we work or we listen to the
Bible on tape.
We try to make chore time fun with cheerful attitudes, some tasteful
joking, music, or interesting conversation. An atmosphere of
cheerfulness and camaraderie helps a child's attitude toward work and
We try to schedule the whole family's work and play at the same times of
day to avoid a feeling of resentment which can result from one child
working at chores while the rest of the family has fun. If yard work
needs to be done, we all do it together and that makes it fun.
I also apply "The Ten Rule" to keep up on yard work. Whenever the
children go outside, they are required to do ten small tasks before they
can play. This could be picking ten weeds, picking off ten dead flowers,
putting ten large dead leaves into the trash, or picking ten diseased
leaves and disposing of them properly. Or the child may do one larger
task like raking or watering instead. This teaches them to help take
care of the property they enjoy and play in—an important future skill.
Train Children To Go the Second Mile
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us to go the second mile. The
attitude of a disciple of Christ is "What else can I do to help?" even
when quite a bit has been demanded of us already (like carrying the
Roman soldier's loads for no pay in Jesus' illustration).
In our home we ask the children to fill in for one another when one
child is sick. We encourage them to help each other with the work and to
bear one another's burdens. The older children help the younger children
with their schoolwork when I am busy, and the younger children help the
older ones with chores.
We strongly discourage an attitude of "that's not my job." We have
taught the children that life's load should be borne by a family
together. James has particularly been an encouragement to the children
with his very cheerful attitude toward work and serving one another.
Children who are allowed to bicker over fairness miss the point of being
Christ's disciple. If the focus is always on who picked more weeds or
whether two children dried the same number of dishes, children develop
contentious attitudes that are not conducive to family harmony. A
teamwork mentality is much better.
I tell the children, "When the table is cleared and wiped, we can all
watch a video or go to the park," or, "If we get the yard work all done
today, we can have ice cream tonight." "After we get the spring cleaning
done, let's all have a special trip together to celebrate." Group goals
with group rewards encourage harmony, teamwork, and responsibility.