Teaching your child responsibility

April 08, 1999|By MEG H. PARTINGTON

Responsibility, though not as concrete as reading, writing and arithmetic, is a basic skill that can be taught to children at an early age.

"It's part of a process that begins with a child when they're very, very young," says William "Bill" Moore, a guidance counselor at Northern Middle School in Hagerstown.

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Melicent "Mel" Malchenson, a guidance counselor at Waverley Elementary School in Frederick, Md., suggests giving children some responsibility as early as 2 years old, perhaps starting with hanging up their coats. As they get older, they can be given other tasks like emptying wastebaskets or drying silverware after a meal, she says.

Not only will assigning chores teach them accountability, but it makes them feel like a productive part of the home, Malchenson says.


Beware of signs of obvious frustration or anger for no apparent reason. Those are indicators the responsibility you've given a child is too much at that time.

Adults need to be open, honest and concrete with their children, says Moore, whose voice can be heard on Hagerstown radio stations in public service announcements about parenting.

Adults also should set an example.

"You teach your children to be responsible, and you need to be responsible, too," Moore says.

Sometimes adults forget that youths are individuals with baggage and varying backgrounds, says Wilbur Daley, assistant administrator at Franklin County Children and Youth Services in Chambersburg, Pa. That means imagination is needed in trying to steer them down a positive path.

Let young men or women get involved in activities they are interested in, including sports, the arts or computers. If they are doing things they enjoy, they will feel good about themselves and be more motivated.

Taking youths out into the community is one way to cure them of the "poor me" attitude, Daley says. The experience may change their perspective, as they will meet many people who are in much worse situations, he says.

Middle school-aged children, in particular, must be given clear directions about what is expected of them. Ask them to repeat your directions back to you, he advises.

"It's very upfront to say to a child 'this is what I expect of you,' " Malchenson says.

Consider consequences

Teens live in the "right now," Moore says, and often don't think before they act.

Teach them how to make decisions using forethought, he says. If they make a bad choice, be understanding and compassionate and patiently explain why it was a bad option.

Parents may feel they need to step in and protect children from the consequences of their actions.

"We want children to have a much easier time," Malchenson says.

But doing so doesn't teach youngsters about accountability, Malchenson says, and won't help them understand that they eventually have to stand on their own.


If children are earning money, whether through allowances, baby-sitting or doing odd jobs, Malchenson recommends parents give them an inexpensive ledger or spiral notebook to keep track of how much money they're making and spending. She also suggests encouraging them to save some of what they earn.

Malchenson also recommends having a money-earning youth pay something toward household expenses.

When teens begin driving, Malchenson suggests asking them to help pay for the car insurance or be responsible for keeping the tank full.

"Money truly is an adult venue," Malchenson says.


A young person's level of responsibility certainly is tested when they go to college.

For traditional college students who begin their postsecondary education between ages 17 and 19, the first seven weeks of their first semester are the most difficult and often most dangerous, says Bill Lucht, director of the counseling center at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va. That's when they release the energy they feel from their newfound freedom by partying and using drugs and alcohol.

Those from troubled homes or who have a history of depression may struggle more at that time of their lives.

"If we don't catch it early, the depression sort of captures the person," Lucht says.

Borderline students or those who have not exhibited much responsibility in high school may be better off attending a two-year school close to home or living at home for the first semester at a four-year college nearby, Lucht says. That way they are less likely to get caught up in the whirlwind of the college campus and start their academic career with poor grades.

While he says the on-campus experience is generally a good one, some teens may not be ready for it right away.

-- Responsibility is...

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