It’s a common complaint among parents: their children just aren’t responsible enough. They feel like they have to pick up after them constantly, cajole them into doing every little chore and monitor them closely so they don’t get distracted from the tasks they have to do.
It’s a frustrating and difficult situation to be in. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Responsibility Is a Core Life Skill
Parents and teachers don’t often put developing a sense of responsibility in the same category as learning to tie one’s shoelaces or knowing how to add up numbers, but they should. Like those important abilities, responsibility is a core life skill.
Responsibility Builds Self-Esteem
When children are able to do things without needing constant reminders, it gives them a sense of their agency and more confidence in their abilities. It makes them feel like they have more control over themselves and their lives.
Seeing that their parents and teachers trust them to make their own decisions or guide their own activities also makes them feel more valued.
Responsible People Work Well with Others
Responsible people are dependable and can be counted on to fulfill commitments. This allows them to be better at making friends, work well within teams and take on leadership roles.
Responsibility Puts Knowledge into Action
Knowledge and intellectual skills are important, but they’re not always terribly effective unless they’re paired with responsibility.
Knowing how to do math doesn’t automatically translate to good financial management. Knowing good grades are important doesn’t automatically translate to showing up to class on time. It takes responsibility to put that knowledge into action.
Responsible people don’t just know what has to be done – they get it done. This allows them to make the most of the opportunities that come their way and makes them less prone to self-sabotaging their own success.
Lessons Learned Too Late
Responsibility comes with a lot of great benefits. But it’s something that many of us acquire too late in life because we’re not expected to be responsible until the stakes are high.
Becoming a young adult means suddenly being burdened with some very serious responsibilities. Almost overnight, you’re expected to live on your own, manage your own finances, budget your time to study independently and attend college lectures or hold down a job. Many of us learn the hard way that we’re just not prepared for it. And if we adapt and learn to be responsible, it’s often only after we’ve seriously overspent and couldn’t pay rent, didn’t study enough and failed a class or two, or missed out on a promotion at work.
Obedience Is Not Responsibility
One of the big reasons children aren’t taught a sense of responsibility for the early age is the obedience trap.
We fall into the obedience trap when we conflate obedience with responsibility. It happens to a lot of parents because our young children being obedient and being responsible often looks the same. In both cases, they’ll tidy their toys, clear their dishes after lunch and put their socks in the laundry hamper instead of leaving them on the floor.
The big difference is the “why” behind those actions. Obedient children will put away their toys because they’ve been told to. But being responsible isn’t about following orders; it’s about seeing what needs to be done and taking the initiative to do it. It’s about knowing that taking a toy out of the cubby means having to put it back after – even if no one’s watching.
Perfection vs. Independence
It’s easy to fall into the obedience trap because obedience gives us something responsibility can’t: perfection.
Parents and teachers often rely on obedience because children can’t be counted on to do things the “right” way. But letting a child do things their way or do it as well as they can, is a great way to encourage them to take charge of their actions and behave responsibly.
And that perfection? It comes with time. Children need the space to learn to do something before they’re expected to do it well – even if it means failing at it a few times.
How We Teach Responsibility
We often treat responsibility like an innate characteristic – some people are just born with it and others aren’t. But that’s not the case. It can be taught. We know it can because we teach it to each and every one of our students.
For parents, teaching responsibility is mainly about getting in the right mindset and seeing your children as capable, giving them age-appropriate chores and leading by example.
For educators, it’s a little different. Here are some of the ways we do it.
The rhythm of the traditional school week is determined from above, with very little input from the students. In that kind of environment, schooling is something that happens to the students, not something they participate in.
With little opportunity to decide how to use their own time, students miss out on a critical opportunity to develop a sense of independence and the skills of personal responsibility.
As a Montessori program, we approach teaching as a partnership between the students and the teachers. The teachers act as guides who help the students decide which activities they will do and how they will do them (in what order, with what materials, whether alone or with others and so on).
In doing so, we give our students some room to be responsible over their day and allow them to take ownership of their learning.
Some of the big obstacles to responsibility have to do with the environment children are in. It’s hard to be responsible for your own clothes if the laundry hamper is upstairs and out of reach and it’s hard to take the initiative to tidy your toys when they go on a shelf that’s out of reach.
Our classrooms are designed with accessibility in mind. Our learning materials are all at the child’s level, which means that everything is in their reach. And the furniture the children use is all child-sized, which means they can learn to use it without assistance.
Giving our students an environment where they can do everything on their own communicates to them that they are able to take responsibility for their activities, their items, and their tidying.
Practical Life Activities
Learning doesn’t always look like learning. For young children, everyday practical activities like pouring water into a cup, slicing fruit, or washing a bowl provide rich opportunities to develop cognitive and motor skills.
When they partake in these activities, our students are also getting into the habit of behaving responsibly. They learn that serving yourself and others, washing up, and helping out isn’t tedious – it can be fun and rewarding.
The traditional classroom is organized according to grades, which roughly correspond to a narrow age group.
Montessori classrooms are organized in cohorts of students with a wider age range. This allows younger students to get help from their older peers instead of always relying on adults while giving older students the opportunity to help and mentor their younger classmates.
That’s where the magic happens. Helping younger children is a big responsibility, and it’s one that our students take on eagerly and with great pride.
We Don’t Pass the Buck on Responsibility
Character development is a buck that often gets passed. One look at a traditional school curriculum is enough to see that they believe it’s only the parents’ responsibility.
We don’t feel that way. We don’t think character is something you acquire in your off-hours.
Our students spend a big part of their day with us, and if we didn’t help them grow and develop every aspect of themselves, that would be a huge missed opportunity. That’s why we make character education a big part of our curriculum. Teaching responsibility is one of the ways we ensure that our students have the skills and attitude they will need to be happy and successful in all aspects of their lives.