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Personal Responsibility: What It Means and Whose Job is It?

"How many times do I have to tell you to clean your room?" Why should a child keep his room neat? Many children say they don't care whether it is neat or dirty, so why should it matter to anyone else? Unless it is a health or safety hazard, or things are getting lost and broken? Then comes the age old question, "What is neat?" The answer certainly differs with a ten year old child and a thirty five year old Mom. Who is setting the standard of how clean a room must be to be acceptable.

What constitutes a neat and tidy room may not seem like such a big deal, but it represents a microcosm of how the family works together and how personal responsibility is taught and learned. Even though your child picks up his shoes without being reminded and turns in his homework assignments, it won't guarantee his success in life. It will, however, go far to help him to develop the characteristics and attributes that employers and mates look for.

In the next few minutes, as you read this article, you will find two different and distinct components of responsibility: outward and inward.

1. Outward responsibility deals with everyday life skills such as doing chores, cleaning the room, doing assigned chores, brushing teeth, returning videos on time, and feeding the dog. Each family has its own list of what they consider important, so we will not discuss particular tasks. Rather, we want you to focus on nurturing a positive attitude and good habits in your children - habits that will help them to be productive and reliable.

If your child has the responsibility to clean his room and you clean it for him, he has learned a valuable lesson. He has learned that if he stalls long enough or whines convincingly enough that you will step in. He has no "ownership" of the task. It is not really his job, it is yours and you occasionally get him to do it.

2. Inward responsibility deals with attitudes, beliefs, and values. Being inwardly responsible means admitting mistakes, treating others as you would like to be treated, being unselfish, and caring about other people's health, property and feelings. We frequently get bogged down with the frustration of dirty rooms and forget about more important factors like inward motivation.

Effective discipline and mindful parenting is setting reasonable limits on our children at different developmental stages but giving them choices so they can learn to form their own opinions.

Our goal is to help them become self-disciplined and to learn to think and problem solve without asking or being told what to do in every situation.

Aptitude and competence or the ability to accomplish a task is not nearly as important and vital to a happy life as attitude and confidence. This is the area where we help our children build self-esteem, problem solving skills, a can-do outlook, and positive expectations toward life.

What does it mean to teach your children responsibility?

All parents have a different answer and a different expectation of when and how their children will assume personal responsibility. Responsibility must be taught. It is not a natural skill, but it can be learned at any age. You do not become responsible when you are mature; rather, you become mature when you are responsible. There are four variables in this exciting venture:

1. Your child (learning style, age, motor skills, interest, hot buttons or incentives)

2. Your expectations (perfection or ever-learning; Being kind and firm in discipline)

3. Your example and how you model 'assuming personal responsibility' for your choices (use the four R's: Recognize, Remorse, Restitution, and Resolve to correct mistakes)

4. Consistency and follow-through (natural and logical consequences)

Focus on the learning experience, not the finished product

In teaching your children to assume personal responsibility focus your attention on the learning experience, not on the finished product. It is the process that is most important. Constantly remind yourself that you are a teacher and your subject matter is life skills. A good affirmation to repeat to yourself is one that comes from Dr. Wayne Dyer, "I will be as helpful as I can in assisting my children to help themselves."

A cooperative environment is one where everyone in the family wins; there are no losers. By learning to support and assist each other in small daily tasks, we set the stage for encouragement and a willingness to become self-reliant.

Good luck. As a word of encouragement, I have to tell you that, of our grown children, the ones who were the messiest as kids are the neatest as adults! Hang in there; there is hope for the future.

Judy H. Wright, Parent Educator © 2005

This article has been written by Judy H. Wright, a parent educator and PBS consultant. You will find a full listing of books, tele-classes, and workshops listed at You have permission to use the article providing full credit is given to author. She may be contacted at 406-549-9813 or


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