Be their best: Encourage responsibility in young children

Once young children learn positive behavior and responsibility, it will last a lifetime.

As our children grow developmentally, it becomes abundantly clear they strive to become very independent from their parents and other adults in their lives. Independence grows as a result of making choices, getting to help with daily routines and just gaining a bit of control over their own lives. As a part of growing independence, children learn to become responsible and take on age-appropriate responsibility. Adults become the catalyst of children learning responsibility through assigning chores, communicating expectations and role-modeling appropriate actions and interactions with others. In this article, we will take a look at three necessary tools to help children be responsible: communication, role modeling and choice offering.


When communicating to children about responsibility, it is very important to make intentions and expectations very clear. When addressing behaviors revolving around responsibility, conversation has to include explanation as to what behavior is appropriate and expected. Make sure to use words that are very familiar to children and use more positives than negatives. Do not just tell a child what not to do, offer suggestions and ideas of good choices and behaviors. Also, be sure to notice your child’s good behavior with plenty of positive affirmations. It is important for them to hear how responsible they are being, as well as how they are making good choices and decisions.

One of the first responsibilities we expect of our children is to be appropriate when spending time around others and to use words such as “please” and “thank you” while minding the adults they are spending time with. Let’s face it, it can be very hard work getting children to make appropriate choices and to behave responsibly. The Huffington Post – Canada has an excellent article about manners and etiquette for children, “Please and Thank You: Teach Your Children Manners with This Advice from Parenting Experts.”

Role modeling

Remember, children are very good at watching our every move and imitating many things they see from others, whether it be language or actions. Be aware they are paying attention to all of your actions and interactions with others. Whenever the chance presents itself, it is important to recognize when children are imitating other’s actions and to show them ways to be appropriate with others. We do not want children to just copy our every move, so we need to show and explain to them what our words mean and how we express ourselves through different feelings. In short, we need to show and explain why we do the things we do and not just tell them, “Don’t do that!”

Work side-by-side with your children, watch them in their own interactions and step in when they need help expressing themselves. Give them age-appropriate descriptions for decisions, choices and actions. When talking about expressions and interactions, make sure you are making eye contact and getting down on their level (on a knee looking eye-to-eye) instead of looking down at them. Most of all, pay attention to your own feelings and words when interacting with others. What you are outwardly presenting is what your children will see and imitate.

Choice offering

In teaching children about responsibility, it is important to offer them choices during their day. The ability to make choices gives a sense of control and influence over what is happening in a child’s life. Appropriate choices include things like deciding which shirt to wear, what type of cereal to have and what toys to play with.

When giving choices, it is important to make sure you are not overwhelming them with more than two or three options; especially before the age of 3. For example, allow them to choose between two types of cereal, a red or blue shirt, cars or dolls and even what pajamas they want to wear at bedtime. Make sure you remain age-appropriate in the choices you offer. You probably wouldn’t offer to make anything a 3-year-old asks for dinner and you wouldn’t want to offer them shorts and a t-shirt over pants and a sweatshirt when it’s freezing cold outside.

Give children choices as part of their day and as part of their typical routine. They will look forward to having some say over what they get to do in the household and you will establish their sense of responsibility as important decision-makers.

It definitely takes a lot of hard work and patience to raise responsible children. Never forget they are always watching the people around them and looking to familiar adults in their life for support and guidance in becoming responsible. When raising young children to be responsible, remember they will sometimes make choices we don’t always agree with and that is OK provided we help them understand what their choices mean and how their choices affect their routine and those around them.

Michigan State University Extension recommends the following resources:

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