If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders. - Abigail Van Buren

When I had a young child, I didn't understand that part of my job was to do as little for my daughter as possible. By the time I attended my first parenting class, I was doing things for my preschooler that she could (and should) have been doing for herself. I quickly learned a common saying among parenting experts: "Never do for children what they can do for themselves."

Teaching children to take responsibility isn't easy. Although opportunities for them to demonstrate their competence are everywhere-around the house, at school and in the community-it's usually easier for us to do things for our kids than to teach them how to do it themselves.

A well-known Harvard University study started in the 1940s and followed 456 teenagers for the next 40 years. The teens came from impoverished or broken homes. The researchers found that those who had to do regular chores became adults who had higher levels of job satisfaction, earned more income, enjoyed stronger marriages, lived longer and healthier lives and were, overall, happier than those who did not have chores.

Can a study conducted so long ago with children born during the Depression, when childhood work and responsibility were necessary and expected, have any relevance to today's youth? Parenting experts give a resounding YES!

The Challenge Today

"The challenge today is to help children develop the self-reliance, commitment and skills that were standard thirty to fifty years ago," says Stephen Glenn, author of Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World. Glenn believes that parents who "do everything" for their children may actually perform a disservice by not allowing children to develop feelings of competence and self-worth.

Around the House

Getting your children to do household chores not only teaches them responsibility, it also keeps your home running smoothly. Here are some guidelines:

  • Select age-appropriate tasks. A 2-year-old can carry napkins to the dinner table. A 4-year-old can vacuum and a 7-year-old can take out the trash. Generally, the older the child, the more complex the tasks you can give.

  • Train well. You can't expect someone to do a job without thorough training. Teach your child by breaking the chore into small steps. Younger children can handle chores that require only a few steps.

  • Schedule chores thoughtfully. If the kids are tired and cranky after a long day at school, doing chores at 4 p.m. is a bad idea. Try scheduling them first thing in the morning when attitudes are fresh.

  • Acknowledge the effort. Kids will make mistakes, so don't expect perfection. Recognize the effort rather than the outcome. When you work together to clean the family room, stand back and have everyone notice the improvement.

At School

Even preschoolers can be responsible for their school work by remembering their backpack and packing their daily snack. Other teaching tools include these:

  • Help kids plan their time. Being responsible means turning school assignments in on time and being prepared for what's ahead. Help your child break a school project into small, manageable components and design a plan to meet the deadline. For example, plan the project on Friday night, get supplies at a craft store on Saturday, build the project Sunday, draft the project paper Monday night, edit on Tuesday, etc. Put the plan on a calendar.

  • Develop a daily and weekly schedule with your child. Kids tend to procrastinate, but a daily schedule will remind them what needs to be done. Reminders can include tasks such as packing lunch and putting homework in the backpack and placing the backpack (along with shoes) by the door every evening. Weekly schedules can include things like music lessons on Tuesday (bring your instrument to school) and media day on Thursday (pack library books to be returned).

  • Allow your child to make mistakes and accept the consequences. This is hard, but it's one of the best things you can do. Did Junior forget his lunch? It's OK-he'll be hungry for a few hours but he won't starve to death. If you don't respond by dropping his lunch off at the cafeteria, he'll remember it the next day.

  • Let your children know what you expect. This is especially important at the beginning of the school year when new routines are being established. Be clear that you expect them to take school work seriously. Never expect perfection in terms of grades. Instead, focus on the effort each child puts forth.

In the Community

Foster good citizenship by involving your child in community service from a very early age through the teenage years. Research shows that working on community service projects has a powerful positive influence on character development.

  • Set a good example and explain your actions. When your child asks, "Where are you going?" rather than saying, "To a meeting," briefly explain (without lecturing) that you're going to a meeting of your Neighborhood Watch group because you value the neighborhood and want to help keep it safe for all families who live nearby.

  • Involve your children in your community activities. Take your child along when you volunteer at your local animal shelter or soup kitchen. As long as children are well supervised, most organizations welcome an extra set of hands helping.

Movies that teach responsibility

There are many books that provide lessons in responsibility, but a good old-fashioned family movie night can do it, too. Here are some award-winning favorites:

  • Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (G)
  • The Lion King (G)
  • A Bug's Life (G)
  • Babe (G)
  • Mulan (G)
  • Holes (PG)
  • It's a Wonderful Life (PG)
  • Little Women (PG)
  • Hoosiers (PG)
  • Dead Poets Society (PG)
  • Ferris Bueller's Day Off (PG)
  • What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (PG-13)

Lynne Ticknor is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. PEP offers classes and workshops to parents and caregivers of children of all ages. PEPparent.org