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.
Duty to Family
Kids need to learn that for the household to run smoothly, every member is obligated to pitch in. That's why Elise Vari of San Diego gave her two kids their first official chores -- helping with laundry (sorting lights from darks) and emptying the dishwasher (initially putting away spoons and forks, then graduating to cups and plates)—when each turned 3. Today Kylie, 4, and Cameron, 7, have assigned chores throughout the house. "Sometimes Cameron steps in to help Kylie finish her jobs, especially when he wants to go out and play with her," says Vari.
Despite such success stories, some parents feel uncomfortable making preschoolers help out around the house, concerned that they'll be robbing their kids of time to just be kids ("they're only small once; they'll have their whole lives to work") or hesitant about slowing down enough to include small children in the rush of housekeeping. But children should have the chance to feel important to the family, says Ellis. "Needing to be needed isn't just an adult thing—it's human nature."
Even an 18-month-old will love it if you ask her to help you lift something that's a little heavy or to fold a tablecloth. Two-year-olds can take on independent tasks with supervision, such as placing a napkin at everyone's plate on the dinner table. Three-year-olds can bring dirty dishes to the kitchen, scoop pet food into a bowl, and wipe up spills. Four-year-olds can water houseplants, empty wastebaskets, sort laundry by colors, and help put away groceries. (Just remember: They may not stay focused longer than 10 to 15 minutes, and each new task requires patient, step-by-step instruction.)
By age 5, children can make significant contributions to running the household. They can sweep with a small broom, fold and put away clothes, or work outside in the yard or the garden. But parents shouldn't expect more than about 20 minutes of sustained attention from kindergartners; note that reminders about specific chores may be needed from day to day. Visual cues like checklists and star charts are good ways to keep them on track.
The World at Large
When Christine Melone's boys turned 4 and 6, they begged their parents to let them join T-ball and soccer teams in their town of Alpharetta, GA. "We took it as an opportunity to discuss social obligation," says Melone. "We explained that it would be their responsibility to attend all practices and games, even when they didn't feel like it."
Social responsibility includes the understanding that our behavior affects others, for good or bad. Psychologists say it's something even infants can grasp. "One of the first things you can do in this area is to respond to your baby when he cries," says developmental psychologist Sharon Ramey, Ph.D., coauthor of Right From Birth: Building Your Child's Foundation for Life. He'll learn early on that his actions can have an impact on others.
At around age 2, children begin to master simple social rules, such as "We don't yell at our friends" and "We don't grab things out of Mommy's hands." Their ability to follow these rules will grow with their ability to feel compassion, says Ellis. Much of this will develop naturally: As early as age 2, kids can be seen soothing a distressed friend. By age 3, most feel remorse when they hurt someone. But parents should still prompt apologies or small restitutions: "Because you broke Charlie's crayon, it would be nice of you to give him one of yours." At around age 4 or 5, children become aware of the world beyond their friends and family. They may notice the homeless man camped out in front of the library or have a classmate who wears leg braces. Many well-meaning parents avoid discussing tougher subjects for fear of troubling their children, but this can leave them feeling helpless. A better tack, say child psychologists: Involve your kids in making a positive difference.
Ellis recalls the pride her 4-year-old son took in raising money for UNICEF at Halloween. "He was thrilled to bring the 11 dollars to his Sunday school teacher," she says.
Children can also be encouraged to set aside a portion of their allowance or other earnings for charity. In our house, we sit down with Eva every few months to help her decide where she'd like her "good deed" money to go. One month she wanted to help poor children (Childreach International); another time, Javan rhinos (World Wildlife Fund).
Another option is to establish a family tradition of community service, says Rosenberg. Even preschoolers, working alongside their parents, can help wipe tables at a homeless shelter, pick up trash in a public park, or visit a nursing home. By doing so, the world and our children will be the better for it.