Why isn’t my child more responsible?

“Why do I have to tell you over and over again to put your clothes away?”

“You should have started your homework earlier!”

“Taking care of the gerbil is your job.”

“Don’t race your bike down the sidewalk like that.”

All parents want their children to be responsible. They want them to be considerate of others, do their schoolwork carefully and on time take care of pets, follow safety rules, and do household chores. When children don’t act responsibly, parents become Frustrated: “When will he, ever learn to do the right thing?”

It is helpful to know that responsibility is tied to a number of other traits such as thoughtfulness, common sense, generosity, and empathy. Responsibility requires maturity, alertness, and a social conscience. While a nine-year-old may be quite responsible, a six-year-old is just learning to think about the consequences of his actions.

In order to become responsible, a child needs good role models. His parents set the standards he’ll follow. If they emphasize the importance of doing a good job and caring about others, he’ll pick that up. He’ll often behave politely at a friend’s house and attentively at school.

The process of learning is neither quick nor smooth. Six- to nine-year-old need many reminders, particularly about personal grooming and household chores. Since a child rarely enjoys or cares about these tasks, he isn’t motivated to do them. This is understandable; even adults don’t like to consistently clean shop, make repairs, and pay bills.

Kids also don’t understand the reasons for many tasks. Making a bed may not seem important: “I’m just going to mess it up again tonight.” Even when parents explain why jobs are necessary, their child might resist: “It’s not fair that I have to take out the trash. I’m not the one who filled up the bag.” “Why should I put the game away? Shannon took it out.” “Nobody will care if my hair isn’t combed.”

Parents may feel less frustrated if they accept that reminders are a necessary part of teaching a child to be responsible. One mother, angry over repeatedly having to ask her child to clear his dishes after eating, decided to take a realistic approach. Instead of loudly reprimanding him (“Why can’t you ever remember to put your plate in the sink?”), she simply incorporated reminders into her mealtime routine (“Don’t forget to clear your dishes”). She felt calmer, he felt less pressured, and the job got done.

Reminders are important in all areas of responsibility. Children need to be told, in nonjudgmental ways, about safety, consideration for other, schoolwork, and family obligations. For some responsibilities, such as chores or homework, a chart might be useful. Each day, a child checks off the jobs he’s completed. Even with a chart, though, most kids still need reminders. The mother of a second grader tried offering a reward each time her daughter did her homework, made her bed and got herself dressed without reminders. However, this mother’s expectations were unrealistic—a child this age just can’t consistently keep track of this many obligations.

If your child continually fails to be as responsible as you’d like, reexamine your expectations. You might be asking him to do too much. Try eliminating one or two of the less important tasks he struggles with and see if he doesn’t become more responsible about the remaining obligations. Also, be sure to leave him free time to play and pursue creative projects; if he has to spend a big portion of his time on tasks that don’t interest him, he’ll be too frustrated to do his best.

In teaching responsibility, as in many other aspects of parenting you’ll find your child becomes most cooperative when you get involved. Help him clean his room, offer to trade jobs so he can water the lawn while you pick up the toys, occasionally sit beside him paying bills or writing a letter while he does homework, put on your seat belt as you tell him to fasten his, have him help you on a charity project.

If he’s able to behave responsibly after you’ve given him reminders, he’s on the right track. Although you may wish he’d learn more quickly, be assured that you’ll continue to see progress as long as you patiently reinforce responsible behavior at home.