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Building responsibility

Building responsibility

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Megan Faure
Building responsibility 

As fiercely as we love our children, we do them no favours when we focus on making their lives ‘easy and pleasant’ at the cost of creating a sense of responsibility.

Monday, September 3rd, 2018

Episode 5 Part 1: Episode 5 Part 2:

Handing over responsibility to our children and having expectations of them is not always the easy path. In fact, it can be a tough journey, but it is essential to their success in life. As parents, it is our duty to nurture our children in a way that fosters independence and a sense of responsibility. Knowing how to do this can be a challenge at a period in time when ‘things come easily’. The current generation of children are accustomed to instant gratification and have come to expect their parents to make their lives comfortable – doing it all for them as they helicopter-parent and control to avoid disappointment. This podcast will look at the pitfalls of parenting in this manner, ways to build responsibility in your child from a young age and how this will produce adults who take on challenges, stick with things when the going gets tough and are ultimately more successful in life.

The press is full of complaints about millennial children – young people with an inflated sense of what the world owes them, who take less responsibility than previous generations – young adults who are living at home until much later, stay shorter periods in jobs and take much less responsibility for their actions. Violence, pregnancy and antisocial behaviour in many sectors of the western world are evidence of this.

Where are we going wrong?
While it is potentially a generalisation to attribute a behaviour or attitude to an entire generation, we do need to reflect on how this view of young peoples’ attitudes has arisen and the responsibility that lies with their parents. We need to consider the role parents play in building a child’s responsibility.

In her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, former dean at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims sites many examples of how the student landscape has changed over the years. She talks about how students are now being micromanaged by their overbearing parents, even into the postgraduate years. Parents go as far as to manage their children’s curriculum choices and university life.

In one example, she speaks of how a young new gradate in the United States was earning $250K a year in 2005, but working very long hours. His mom decided that even though the pay was good, the hours were too long. So, she called up his boss one weekend to complain and request he shorten her son’s work hours. The result: He was fired on the Monday. This scenario arose after years of this mother disempowering her son.

It starts in the primary school years where we manage our children’s diaries, social lives and disappointments in a way that completely disempowers them. As a mom of three children, I have been shocked over the years to hear how other parents intervene on their child’s behalf.

Here are a few examples:

  • Moms who do their child’s science expo projects to ensure they are selected for the regional round of the competition
  • Dads who storm onto the rugby pitch to argue with the referee or sit in the sports teacher’s office to insist on a place for their child in the team, all with the goal of preventing their child’s disappointment
  • Parents who decide whom their child can have playdates with and plan every moment of their children’s afternoon
  • Au pairs rushing into school at break with a forgotten lunch or sports kit

How did we get here?
The question is why is it that our generation of parents does not expect our children to take responsibility and why do we continuously, in every setting, ‘do it for them’?

  • Love – I would say that almost every parent is well-meaning. We want the best for our children. We want them to have an excellent self-esteem and believe that playing in a good team and excelling academically will bring this – so we focus on giving them every opportunity. We desire excellence to the extent that we will do the work for them. We cover for them, advocate for them and in doing so, we take responsibility away from them.
  • Perfection – There is an aspect of not building responsibility in our children that has to do with our own drive for perfection. I asked a woman who lives in the United Kingdom (UK) if her boys make their beds and clean their rooms. The boys quickly responded on her behalf that she did it for them because if they did it, it would be wrong and too messy for her liking.
  • It’s time-consuming – Our lives are so pressurised and time constraints impact almost every interaction. It takes time to let an inexperienced pair of hands tie their laces or clean the hamster cage. So, we step in and hurry the process along by doing it for our children.
  • Protect – There is something about being a millennial parent that wants to protect our children from any disappointment and challenge. The idea that our child may not get into the university course they are aiming for, means that we will pay for extra lessons instead of making their school marks their own responsibility.
  • Safety – Stories in the media and the risks of social media have ensured we are terrified for our child’s well-being. We won’t let them walk to the café and buy sweets on their own. As kids, we were taught skills like dealing with ‘stranger danger’ and then let loose on the world. We had to be responsible from a much younger age.
  • Protect their feelings – We consider our child’s happiness as paramount and in an attempt to keep the peace, we may find ourselves avoiding conflict. Requiring our kids to take responsibility may lead to conflict situations, because sometimes responsibility and accountability are hard work and place demands on your child. Part of building responsibility is tough love – insisting on the hard path and not giving in. An example would be when your child wants to go out with her friends, but her project needs to be completed for a deadline.

Why prioritise building responsibility

Aside from the simplistic complaints about millennials (which may or may not be fair), there are, in fact, really good reasons to start to instil a sense of responsibility and accountability in our children from a young age.

There are four reasons to build your child’s responsibility:

  • Life skills
    When parents, nannies or domestic workers ‘do it all’ for a child, they rob the child of the opportunity to develop life skills. Research has shown that kids from more advantaged homes have more done for them – not because the parents of less advantaged kids don’t care, but simply because they have greater commitments with longer hours and travel time, just to put food on the table. Simple life skills like making your bed, cleaning and washing after dinner, planning and packing what to take to school, creating a meal or getting a project done on time are essential areas of responsibility for young adults and these life skills are learnt at home if they’re given the chance.

    Sending your 18-year-old off into the world without basic life skills is an abdication of our responsibility to develop independent and effective adults.
  • Self-efficacy and long-term mental health
    Self-efficacy is the belief a person has in their ability to complete a task, reach a goal and manage a situation. It is the sense of being powerful enough to actively reach a desired outcome.

    Researchers Peterson and Seligman describe how humans can develop learned helplessness if everything is done for them. This learned helplessness results in a belief that you have little effect on the world and consequently that circumstances ‘happen’ to you. We call this an external locus of control.

    This is a very dangerous place for a human to operate from, in terms of psychological potency. Adults with an external locus of control are more likely to be anxious, victims of abuse and to have poor physical health. We know that we have somehow bred a generation of adolescents and young adults who suffer from depression and anxiety, and are prescribed medication for these diagnoses at an alarming rate.
  • Self-esteem
    Low self-efficacy in children undermines the development of self-esteem. Think about the scenario of the mom who does the project for her child. What is the message he receives?
    • You are incapable.
    • Your actions are not related to the outcome (because it’s mom’s actions that create the outcome).
    • Your efforts are not good enough for the desired outcome.

      If you want your child to have a robust self-esteem and a good sense of self-efficacy, you need to ensure they take responsibility and are actively involved in goal-directed activities in childhood. We want our children to be active participants and not to passively accept their lot because when children are actively involved and see the fruits of their labours, their self-esteem grows.

      Have you ever watched a young child attempt to climb the monkey bars for the first time – grasping for that last rail as he reaches the other side? He is likely to exclaim: “I did it!” This is the mantra we should all be listening for in our children: ‘I did it!’
  • Building grit and a solid work ethic
    One of the greatest delights in life is watching something you have worked hard at blossom, succeed and be recognised. When we see the fruits of our labours, it inspires us to work harder. A solid work ethic is important in life and is associated with a sense of responsibility. When we take responsibility for the outcome and it’s good, we feel a sense of achievement.

    For these and many other reasons, it is our duty to develop a sense of responsibility in our children for both short- and long-term outcomes.

Areas of responsibility
Personal responsibility: Every child has to learn to take responsibility for their actions, for achieving their own goals and for their happiness. This is learnt within the safe space of a supportive relationship early on. If your child messes up and needs to take responsibility, support him but do not rescue him. Allow him to face up to the consequences of his actions. An example would be when your child leaves his lunch at home. Do not rush in with a new lunch; he can ask a friend that day and then won’t forget next time.

My son once bunked the last day of school to go to gym. We had dropped him at school and he left. It just so happened that it was the day that he got awarded an exchange programme to the UK. But as he was bunking, the school decided he would not go. We did not intervene or advocate on his behalf. He lived with that consequence.

Family responsibility: A family is a system, much like a community or organisation, and is an ideal environment to practise taking responsibility. All children should have responsibilities within the family. Each member of the family needs to have chores that they know they have to do. Make them regular, consistent and reinforce them for everyone.

Societal responsibility: There are issues in our communities and the environment that affect us all, and children need to be expected to play their part:

  • Be responsible for the environment by not littering and not wasting water.
  • Be considerate of cleaning staff by picking up all mess when leaving a classroom.
  • Be polite to needy people.

By having these expectations of your child, you will give him a sense of how he impacts others and the environment.



Building responsibility
The first step in building responsibility in our children requires an attitude adjustment from us as parents. To do this, let’s go back to the factors that stand in the way of us building responsibility:


  • Love – We certainly do not need to love our kids any less, but we need to understand how we show that love. Tough love is the type of love that says: I love you enough to let you fail a little, to make you work at times and bear the consequences of your actions.
  • Perfection – As parents, we need to acknowledge that there is a huge amount of value in process – more so than in outcome. Benchmarking the value of something on the outcome may mean we expect excellence and perfection, but prioritising the process of working towards the outcome means that we will let go of our standard of perfection.
  • It’s time-consuming – Our lives are so rushed and while we are teaching responsibility, we need to slow down. Yes, it is quicker to tie your four-year-old’s shoelaces for her, but she will be disempowered. So, pause; put down the cellphone and teach the skill – and then teach it again and again.
  • Safety – This is the hard one for parents in South Africa, but we do need to allow our children to take risks. If there is a clear danger – like swimming without armbands before your child has learned to swim – it is obviously a safety issue that you have to take to heart. Likewise, I am not talking about neglect – like leaving a seven-year-old at home alone. I am talking about letting your child cross the road alone while you wait on the other side, for instance. Teach the skill of road safety – where to cross and how to look.
  • Protect their feelings – Avoiding conflict is the worst reason to avoid building responsibility. The long-term consequences on psychological health should be the priority and empowering your child is the way to do this. Doing it all for them will do more damage emotionally in the long run.

Practical steps to build responsibility Once you have worked on changing your mindset, it’s time to look at how to practically build responsibility in your child over time. Like all aspects of development, a child begins life dependent on and over time it is our role to shift them to independence.

Take learning to read as a concrete example. Before five years old, reading is your responsibility. Initially you do everything for your child – turn the pages, read the words and point to the pictures. Then slowly you start to hand over some of the job. She turns the pages and points to the pictures. Later you may start to run your finger underneath the words, so she learns that writing and reading are done from left to right. When she is six, you will teach her the phonetic alphabet and finally to read. You will sit with her while she reads and practises. It will take time and loads of patience from you, but she will eventually achieve independence.

These are the four steps you have gone through as you taught your child this essential skill:

  • First, I do it for you.
  • Then I do it with you.
  • Then I watch you do it.
  • Then you do it independently.

Techniques used to build responsibility


During the process of building responsibility, you will model, teach and encourage your child and, in the process, build her sense of self-efficacy:

Your child is watching you all the time and will imitate your behaviours in every aspect of life. You need to be a model for your child with respect to taking on responsibility:

  • Do chores like making beds or picking up the towel after bath and tell your young child what you are doing: “I am making your bed, because it feels nice to get into a clean bed at night.”
  • Take responsibility for the environment and explain this to him: “We must find a bin, because we cannot litter and expect someone else to clean up after us.”
  • Apologise when you are wrong and take responsibility for your actions. For instance, if you forget to buy a birthday gift for a friend, say: “I am so sorry, I messed up and will have to take Vuyo a gift tomorrow.”

Now one should take the time to teach the skill. This is often the hard part, as it requires time, patience and encouragement. You need to create an expectation of your child, and then give clear instructions and expectations. It sometimes takes time and needs to be broken down. In the beginning, perform the task as a team.

Take clearing the table after dinner. The end goal should be to have your child cleaning up completely after dinner by eight years old. The steps to that are incremental – you have modelled it and talked her through it as a preschooler. At six years old, ask her to bring the plates to you by the dishwasher, and then show her how to clean them off in the bin and load the dishwasher. A few months later, ask her to do the other part – you clear for her, and she cleans them off and loads the dishwasher. If she gets it wrong, show her how to do it better.

It’s always important to give appropriate feedback once the task is done. Start with words of affirmation, taking care not to praise her unrealistically just to make her feel okay. Rather comment on the process like: “I really liked how you carefully carried the plates tonight.” Then go on to the feedback uncritically: “Next time, you can wipe the plates off before you pop them in the dishwasher.”

Responsibility milestones
Having looked at how to build responsibility in your child, you may be wondering what you should expect of your child in terms of responsibility. In her book, Lythcott-Haims references Lindsay Hutton’s article on life skills by age:

  • 4–5 years, your child should:
    • Recall important names and numbers.
    • Be able to make an emergency call.
    • Do simple chores such as feed pets and do basic laundry.
    • Be able to brush her hair and teeth, and choose her own clothes.
  • 6–7 years, your child should:
    • Do basic cooking such as making toast.
    • Put groceries away.
    • Wash dishes.
    • Straighten bathroom after using it and make her bed.
  • 8–9 years, your child should:
    • Take care of her personal belongings.
    • Care for outdoor toys.
    • Make a grocery list.
    • Count change.
    • Take out rubbish.
  • 10–13 years, your child should:
    • Gain independence in terms of going into a shop and make purchases himself.
    • Change bedding.
    • Look after younger kids under supervision.
    • Make school lunches.

This may seem somewhat daunting, but next time you are tempted to ‘just do it for them’, pause and ask yourself these questions: Are you doing your child any favours long-term? What is the motivation behind your action? Are you in a hurry? Do you feel sorry for him? Do you fear the conflict? Analyse yourself and your actions, and take the steps towards building responsibility in your child.
It’s the best thing you can do for them.


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