Family, Kids & Relationships

How to help kids learn to take responsibility for their actions

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If you’re a parent, you’re probably used to hearing kids say things like “It wasn’t me!” — when, clearly, it was them. So how do you get kids to start taking responsibility for their own actions, more of the time?

Accountability is a tough concept that might take kids years to fully grasp, but learning it is an important part of growing up. Owning up to one’s actions may not come easily to younger ones, but the process can still start younger than you think! Even with preschoolers, you can start to incorporate some habits that promote accountability into your family routine.

Here are some of the steps you can take to help your child learn to take responsibility for their own actions, whether they were mistakes or positive behaviors. Remember to be patient with your child’s progress — and with yourself — in the process.

Start with giving credit for positive actions

Taking responsibility isn’t only important when you make mistakes in life. It’s also important when you are being helpful or working hard on something. Acknowledging these positive actions on a regular basis will set kids up to take responsibility during school, sports, around the house, and (eventually) at work!

Be sure to offer small bits of praise throughout the day when you notice a responsible action, such as: “Thank you for putting away your shoes. That’s what I call responsible!” or “I appreciate you telling me what happened. That was a very mature choice.” During family meetings or around the dinner table, you can give more formal shout-outs to family members for their efforts in anything from chores to kind actions to learning new skills.

Stay calm when kids make mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes, but being honest about what happened isn’t always easy for kids — especially if they’re afraid you’re going to get mad. As a parent, you can take steps to create a safe, nonjudgmental space for them to come forward.

It starts with staying calm and not overreacting to mistakes and unwanted behavior. Instead of yelling about messes, for example, calmly say, “OK, how can we clean this up?” The younger the kids, the more help they will need with figuring out and implementing the solution to a problem. But if you continue to take the mindset that you’re on the same team as your child, you’ll avoid the dynamic where they want to hide problems from you in the future.

Model admitting your own mistakes and apologizing

When you regularly admit your own mistakes — out loud — it teaches kids how to reflect and take responsibility. Try to handle mistakes with grace, accountability, and a growth mindset.

For example, if you forgot something important at the store, instead of berating yourself with “Ugh, I’m so stupid!” try to calmly take responsibility and mention consequences and solutions: “Oh man, I got distracted and totally forgot to buy the toilet paper. I’ll have to go back to the store after dinner instead of watching TV.”

Also, learn and practice the right way to apologize whenever your mistakes affect other people, including your kids. So instead of feeding feelings of shame, anxiety, and confusion, you’ll be helping generate feelings of trust, respect, and accountability in your family.

Don’t try to spare them from life’s consequences

When kids make big mistakes, it can be tempting to swoop in and try to save them from getting in trouble. However, avoiding consequences won’t help them grow into responsible, mature adults.

For example, if your child forgot to start a school project until right before it’s due, help talk them through their options: rush through the assignment and turn it in on time, or ask the teacher for an extension to spend more time on it — both of which might affect their grade. (In other words, staying up late to help them complete the assignment or trying to convince the teacher to change their policy are not options here.) Then, ask what they can do differently next time so they’re not stuck in this situation again.

Talk about people’s actions instead of judging character

When you do talk about positive or negative actions of others, yourself, or your own family members, try to focus on the actions taken and choices made, not on how they define or label someone.

For example, if a classmate did something unkind to your child, don’t say that they’re a mean kid — just say that they made some choices that hurt others. Ask your child how those choices may have affected that person as well as everyone else. This reflection helps your child understand that everyone can take responsibility and make their own choices in each situation, and that choices have consequences.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.