When my daughter Eva started kindergarten, I found that the fastest way to get her ready each morning was to dress her in bed. It was also easier for me to make her bed and hang up her towels after she'd gone. Faster and easier, yes. But a few months into the school year, I flashed to that classic scene from The Secret Garden, in which a spoiled 9-year-old Mary Lennox arrives at her uncle's manor unable to do so much as button her own frock. I realized that by handling those things for Eva, I wasn't really doing her any favors. How would she learn to be a responsible adult: one who'd take care of her own needs and also understand the importance of being held accountable for her actions toward others and the world at large?
A Head Start
Many parents underestimate how much even very young kids understand about the most basic tenets of responsibility. "They tend to wait until their children are 8 or 9, when they're expected to tackle fairly large challenges independently—completing homework assignments or pitching in to help with household chores unasked, for example," says Brenda Boyd, Ph.D., an associate professor of human development at Washington State University, in Pullman. "But the foundations of responsibility should be laid much sooner."
"We're often so eager to make sure our kids have a childhood free of stress, disappointment, and rejection that we rob them of the life experiences that will teach them to be adults who can be held accountable for their actions," says psychologist Elizabeth Ellis, Ph.D., author of Raising a Responsible Child. We pick up after them, fight their battles, rescue them from the consequences of a hurtful remark rather than teach them that it's their duty as human beings to contribute to the greater good.
Here, from child-development professionals and parents, are some effective ways to foster our children's self-reliance, sense of family duty, and growth as responsible citizens -- lessons they can begin to learn at a very young age.
Jessica Snyder Sachs writes frequently on health and psychology. Her last article for Parenting was "Mood Alert!" in the Fall 2000 special issue.