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Helping Your Child Learn Responsible Behavior

Our children deserve to learn important lessons from us and to acquire important habits with our help. They need help in learning what matters to us. We want our children to grow up to be responsible adults. We want them to learn to feel, think, and act with respect for themselves and for other people. We want them to pursue their own well-being, while also being considerate of the needs and feelings of others.

Today, there is wide recognition that many of our children are not learning to act responsibly while they are young. Studies show that many children see nothing wrong with cheating on tests. Some see nothing wrong with taking things that don't belong to them.

If proper attitudes and behavior are not learned early, problems can mushroom with even worse consequences when children are older. As crime has increased, teen-age offenders have shown less and less feeling for their victims. But even for the youngsters who will never commit a crime, it is better to learn responsibility when they are young, rather than when they are older and they have to change bad habits.

This [material] focuses on practical suggestions for helping young children appreciate the importance of acting responsibly in their everyday lives. Further, it provides ideas on how to help them make responsible choices, and stick with them, even when doing so is hard and the material rewards are few.

Many parents will also want to share with their children deeply held religious and moral convictions as a foundation for ethical behavior. This [material] discusses habits of fairness, respect, courage, honesty, and compassion that responsible people share, and it can be used by parents with different beliefs.

As parents, we can give our children the best in us by helping them acquire habits and character traits that they can rely on in their own lives. If we help them learn to take pleasure in thinking and behaving well, they will have the best chance to lead good lives as individuals and as citizens in the community. This will be true no matter what unpleasant situations or bad influences they come across.

What Do We Mean by Responsibility?

None of us is born acting responsibly. A responsible character is formed over time. It is made up of our outlook and daily habits associated with feelings, thoughts, and actions. Responsible people act the way they should whether or not anyone is watching. They do so because they understand that it's right and because they have the courage and self-control to act decently, even when tempted to do otherwise.

We want our children to appreciate the importance of being responsible. We also want them to develop the habits and strength to act this way in their everyday lives. Learning to be responsible includes learning to:

  • respect and show compassion for others;
  • practice honesty as a matter of course;
  • show courage in standing up for our principles;
  • develop self-control in acting on our principles;
  • maintain self-respect.

Respect and Compassion for Others

As part of being responsible, children need to respect and show concern for the well-being of other people. Respect ranges from using basic manners to having compassion for the suffering of others. Compassion is developed by trying to see things from the point of view of others, and learning that their feelings resemble our own.

Daddy, why is Grandma crying?

She is very sad. One of her closest friends just died. Come and sit with me. Do you remember how you felt when your gerbil, Whiskers, died?

I felt sad and lonely.

I'm sure Grandma feels that way, too. Maybe you can think of a way to help her.

I could give her a hug. . .

That's a great idea! I'm really glad you thought of it.

Respect for others also includes the habit of treating people fairly as individuals, regardless of race, sex, or ethnic group. As we mature, respect includes realizing that not all our obligations to others, such as caring for a family member who is sick, are chosen freely. And it includes tolerance for people who do not share our beliefs or likes or dislikes, as long as they do not harm others.

These habits are especially important because many of the wrongs people commit result from indifference to the suffering they cause.


Honesty means telling the truth. It means not misleading others for our own benefit. It also means trying to make decisions, especially important ones, on the basis of evidence rather than prejudice. Honesty includes dealing with other people and being honest with ourselves.

To understand the importance of being truthful to others, our children need to learn that living together depends on trust. Without honesty, trusting each other becomes impossible.

Honesty with ourselves involves facing up to our own mistakes and biases, even when we have to admit them to others. It includes self-criticism. The point is to learn from our errors and to do our best to correct them, not dwell on them.


Courage is taking a position and doing what is right, even at the risk of some loss. It means being neither reckless nor cowardly, but facing up to our duties. It includes physical courage, intellectual courage to make decisions on the basis of evidence, and moral courage to stand up for our principles.

Courage does not mean never being afraid. It can involve trying to overcome our fears, such as a fear of the dark. But our children also need to learn that sometimes it is all right to be afraid.

Daddy, a man showed us money by the school playground today.

What did you do?

We ran for the teacher.

Why did you do that?

We were scared. You and Mommy and our teacher Mrs. Jones said never take anything from grown-ups we don't know. Run away. Go and tell somebody we know.

Good for you. It was right to be scared. Lots of people are nice, but some are very mean. They can hurt you. The mean ones sometimes try to fool people by pretending to be nice. Now, tell me, what did the man look like?

Courage becomes especially important by the time children become teenagers. They often have to stand up against peer pressure to do the wrong thing, such as using drugs.


Self-control is the ability to resist inappropriate behavior in order to act responsibly. It relates to all of the different aspects of responsibility mentioned so far, including respect and compassion for others, honesty, and courage. It involves persistence and sticking to long-term commitments. It also includes dealing effectively with emotions, such as anger, and developing patience.


People with self-respect take satisfaction in appropriate behavior and hard-won accomplishments. They don't need to put others down or have a lot of money in order to respect themselves. People who respect themselves also view selfishness, loss of self-control, recklessness, cowardice, and dishonesty as wrong and unworthy of them. As they mature, if they have learned the lessons of responsibility, they will develop a good conscience to guide them.

In addition, people who respect themselves respect their own health and safety. Similarly, they are unwilling to be manipulated by others. Patience or tolerance does not mean allowing others to mistreat us.

While we help children have high standards for themselves, we also need to let them know that failure is no embarrassment when we have done our best. For example, losing a game when we have played our best, and our opponents have simply played better, is no disgrace.

How Can Parents Encourage Responsible Behavior?

Everyday Experiences

Especially when they are young, children learn best about responsibility in concrete situations. What they do and what they witness have lasting effects. Most of the activities described in this book are for you and your child.

We are always teaching our children something by our words and our actions. They learn from seeing. They learn from hearing. They learn from overhearing. They learn from us, from each other, from other adults, and by themselves.

All of us acquire habits by doing things over and over again, whether in learning to play a musical instrument, to pick up after ourselves, to play games and sports, or to share with others. The best way to encourage our children to become responsible is to act as responsibly as we can in their presence. We must genuinely try to be the sort of people we hope they will try to become.

We can show them by our words and by our actions that we respect others. We can show them our compassion and concern when others are suffering. They need to see our own self-control, courage, and honesty. They need to learn that we treat ourselves, as well as others, with respect, and that we always try to do our best. As they grow older, they should have the chance to learn why we live as we do.

Daddy, why are you leaving that note on the garbage can?

There is broken glass inside, Matthew, and I don't want the garbage collectors to get hurt because of me. I am warning them about the glass.

Are they your friends?

No. I don't know them.

But you don't want them to get hurt. . .

As our children watch us daily, as we talk to them, encouraging their questions and trying to answer them thoughtfully, they begin to understand us and we begin to understand them. Understanding each other well is the best way to teach our children respect for our ideals of good character.

Using Literature and Stories

Children learn about responsibility through many activities, including reading stories. They learn by identifying with individual characters or because the message from a favorite story strikes a particular chord. Children can be touched deeply by good literature, and they may ask to have things read to them again and again.

Children can learn all sorts of lessons from stories. They might learn about courage by reading about David standing up to Goliath. Or they might learn the value of persistence and effort from The Little Engine That Could.

When they are older, reading can help prepare children for the realities and responsibilities of adulthood. It is usually better for children to read a good book about such things as war, oppression, suicide, or deadly disease before seeing these things up close.

When our children grow up they often remember stories that were told to them by family members when they were young. When we tell stories to our children, we should remember old favorites of ours, like The Three Little Pigs, not leaving out a single time the wolf says, "I'LL HUFF, and I'LL PUFF, and I'LL BLOW YOUR HOUSE IN!"

Developing Judgment and Thoughtfulness

Judgment on ethical issues is a practical matter. Children develop their capacity for judging what is a responsible act, just as they come to appreciate the meaning of responsibility, through practice. Especially when they are young, children need to see moral questions in terms that are meaningful to them.

We can also help our children develop good judgment by talking through complicated situations with them. One way is to help them understand the long-term consequences of different choices. If they tell us about a story they have read, we might ask them to imagine what the result might have been if a favorite character had acted differently.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to know the difference between acting bravely and acting recklessly or how to balance duties when they conflict. As parents, we can help by making it clear, through what we do as well as what we say, that it is important in such situations to think carefully and honestly about what should be done, as well as to keep in mind how others will be affected by what we do.

Your child's ability to reason about different issues, including ethical ones, will improve as your child matures. Just as reasoning can lead to a more thoughtful understanding of responsibility, or what actions to take in a complicated situation, it may also become easier to rationalize selfish or reckless behavior. But if you have helped your young child develop strong habits of considering the welfare of others, honesty, courage, and admiration for worthy accomplishments, your child will have a solid foundation on which to build.


As parents, sometimes we think that we must set aside particular times or create special situations in order to teach our children. But that is far from the truth when it comes to learning responsibility. While it is important to have some times together when you won't be disturbed, the most ordinary situations in everyday life are filled with opportunities for sound teaching, if parents pay attention to them.

This [section] contains activities to encourage the habits of responsibility in your child. Most of them are not, however, the kind of activities that you can do together for half an hour once a week. Instead, they are more like rules of thumb, ideas to build on. They illustrate the concepts introduced in the previous sections. They should stimulate your own thinking and your own ideas.

Just remember one thing: teaching our children about responsibility doesn't mean that we can't laugh or that we have to be grim. Our children should see that we can be serious about our principles, while still being able to play and have fun.

Dad, can I show you what we did in ballet class today?


It was hard. We had to get way up on our toes and twirl around like this.

Great. Let me try it. . .oops! Now, what's so funny about that? Well, OK. I guess we all aren't as graceful as you are.

Getting to Know Others

Children need to be shown and taught respect for others. Other people have feelings and hopes, just as we do. We have much to learn from each other - from people who live far away and from those who lived long ago.

What to do:

  • Set a good example by acting respectfully toward others. Always make it clear that prejudice is wrong and that all of us are equals, no matter our color, gender, or background.
  • Show an interest in learning about and from others - from neighbors and relatives, and from books about our own and other civilizations. Tell your child interesting things you have learned.
  • Encourage your child to learn about many different lands and people, to learn more than one language, and to read stories about children from all over the world. Show your child how you try to see things from the point of view of others.
  • Listen attentively when your child wants to tell you about interesting things discovered about history, geography, religions, art, and ways of life.

We can help our children understand that there are often things to learn from those who lived in the past and from those whose lives are different from our own. We can teach our children to behave respectfully toward people and not pre-judge them. Sometimes, however, we must make it clear that some people behave in ways that are harmful, and such behavior should not be tolerated.

Magic Words, Caring Deeds

The magic words are "please" and "thank you." There are other manners we are constantly teaching our children as well.

What to do:

  • Show your children the manners you expect at home first. The next time you eat dinner together, have the children pretend they are eating in a restaurant. How should they talk to each other? What should they say when the waiter brings their food? Or have the children pretend they are riding the bus. What should they do if the bus stops suddenly and they bump into someone? How should they carry a large package on the bus?
  • The next time your children mention something nice another person did for them, suggest they write a thank you note. It doesn't have to have a lot of words. It can have pictures as well.
  • You, too, can write short notes to your child to indicate your appreciation for something done right.

Children need to learn that little signs of appreciations can be very important to other people. And manners are a part of respecting and caring for the feelings of others. If we turn the chore of learning manners into a game, children will get the practice they need without embarrassing us or themselves.

As you teach the importance of manners, you may need to be honest about what your child can expect from others:

Mom, why do you make such a fuss when I eat with my mouth open?

Because it's ugly for other people to see. Good manners show respect for other people.

What's respect?

It means caring how other people feel.

If I care about them, will they care about me?

Not always, Paul. Some people don't care and never will, no matter how kind we are to them. But in our family, we do care.

Gifts from the Heart

Have your child give a gift of himself at the next holiday or any time he wants to do something nice for anyone else.

What to do:

  • Talk to your child about gift giving. What does it mean to give something to someone else?
  • Instead of buying a gift, have your child make a gift. Does your child have a special talent? Maybe your child would like to sing or write a song for a relative? Is there a chore your child could do? Maybe wash dishes for a week. Is there a special toy that could be loaned to a sister or brother for a week?
  • Use materials from around the house so that little, if any, money is spent.
  • If the gift is an activity or chore, have your child make a card with a note on it, telling what the gift will be.
  • Have your child use imagination in making an inviting package. Perhaps your child could paint a small rock and wrap it in a big box. Or make an envelope out of the comics from the Sunday newspaper.

Most young children don't have enough money to buy a gift for a friend or relative. You can teach your child that a gift that shows effort and attention can mean more than a gift from the store.

Honesty, the Best Policy

Children need to learn that benefiting from manipulating or lying to others is dishonest and unworthy of them.

What to do:

  • Tell the story about the boy who cried "Wolf!" so many times to get attention that when the wolf finally came, no one believed him.
  • Ask your child if anyone has ever lied to her. How did that make her feel?
  • Be careful to follow through on things you say to your child. Commitments that may seem minor to you can mean a lot to your child. Make promises and keep them.

Our children need to learn about the importance of trusting each other in our everyday lives. Without honesty, trust becomes impossible.

There's a Monster in My Room!

Sometimes our children have needless fears that we can help them overcome.

What to do:

  • Listen when your child mentions a fear, even if it sounds silly to you.
  • With your child, come up with a plan for facing up to the fear.
  • Go through the plan together. Let your child take the step that confronts the fear, although it may be helpful for you to be there.

Our children can acquire courage if we help them gain practice in standing up to their unnecessary fears. In addition, if we take seriously what are real concerns to them, they will trust us and feel safe telling us their thoughts and feelings.


Children should learn not to allow others to mistreat them. At the same time, we want them to learn how to reach understandings peacefully, whenever possible.

What to do:

  • Listen to your child and find out if others are not treating your child as they should. This will encourage your child to trust you and come to you when there is a problem.
  • Help your child consider various ways of dealing with a particular problem.
  • If the problem is the way another child is behaving, suggest working out the problem by talking with the other child, or a responsible adult.
  • If the problem is another adult, however, or if your child is seriously threatened by other children, you will need to intervene directly.

A part of self-respect is not tolerating mistreatment by others. Finding appropriate ways to deal with unpleasant behavior by others is an important, if sometimes difficult, part of growing up.

Sidebar:There appears to be a link between ADHD and bullying. A 2008 study conducted in Sweden, showed that children with ADHD are four times more likely than their peers to bully other children, and they are almost ten times as likely than other children to be bullied.

Helping Out

Our children need to learn that as they get older and can contribute more, more will be expected of them.

What to do:

  • As your child matures, consider additional ways your child can contribute to the household.
  • Discuss the new duties with your child. Avoid describing them in ways that seem like a punishment. Instead, you can imply that they require a new level of ability, which your child now possesses.
  • With younger children, it helps sometimes if you do the chores together and talk or make it fun. But don't do your child's work!
  • If possible, new tasks should stretch a child's abilities and encourage satisfaction in good work. Praise something done well, especially a new challenge.

Doing chores is a useful way to learn persistence and to learn that when we live up to our responsibilities we enable others to trust and rely on us.

A Job Well Done

We need to show our children that we take satisfaction in acting properly and accomplishing difficult tasks.

What to do

  • Through your daily activities, show your children that you care about a job well done.
  • Perhaps our children's most important tasks are to work hard at school and do homework. When we check homework and point out mistakes, we help them to see how an error has arisen. When we let them correct the error themselves, we inspire self-confidence. It is also important for us to show them that we appreciate their good efforts.
  • Teaching our children self-respect does not mean complimenting everything they do. Our children also need honest criticism from time to time. When we do criticize, it should be of things they have done, not them personally.
  • Most of all, we should help our children form the self-confidence and self-respect that come from opportunities to do good work as students or as family members.

Helping children form self-respect is based on how we treat them and our own example.

There are many opportunities to teach self-respect through our actions:

Dad, nobody's going to see inside the model's wing. Why do you work so hard with all those little pieces?

Because that's the right way to build the plane, Martha. It makes the wings strong when the plane flies, and that's more important than what people see. I want to make the best plane I can. Do you want to help?

Our Heroes

Many children love to look at portraits or photographs, especially if you can tell stories about the people in the pictures.

What to do:

  • Select a photo of a person in your family with an impressive quality or accomplishment. Tell your child about the person and about what the person did. Perhaps your grandparents had the courage to immigrate from another country or your parents sacrificed in order to support you in school. Talk about the results of these actions.
  • Collect photographs from newspapers or magazines about impressive people in your community. With your child, talk about their actions that merit admiration or praise.
  • In addition to relatives or others, you may want to display portraits of other people who deserve our admiration and respect. A picture of Anne Frank, a young girl who wrote a diary while she and her family live in hiding from Nazi Germans and who died in a concentration camp, can inspire conversation about courage and compassion for others. A portrait of Martin Luther King, a great civil rights leader who believed in non-violent change, can lead to discussions of great accomplishment despite prejudice. Choose people whom you admire and feel comfortable talking to your child about.

By the stories we tell about the people we admire, we can inspire children and remind them of those qualities we think are important.


Sometimes, as parents, we don't act the way we should in front of our children.

What to do:

  • Try to be honest with yourself and your child if you find that you've done something that sets a bad example. Sometimes we need to think a little bit about an event to realize that we've done something inappropriate.
  • If your child has observed your behavior, it's especially important that you be honest. A simple statement is appropriate in most cases; there is no need to turn your admission into a major event.
  • Follow up with an apology to anyone you have treated badly and, if possible, by making up for what you have done. It's important that our children, especially older ones, see that we face up to our own mistakes.

Will You Be My Friend?

Our children need to learn to choose their friends wisely.

What to do:

  • Talk to your child about what is important in a friend. In addition to being fun, what other qualities are important? What about honesty, dependability, a real interest in your child's welfare?
  • Talk to your child about the type of friends to avoid. Ask if your child can remember a friend who couldn't be counted on.

Our children should learn that it is important to choose friends and companions who care about others and act responsibly.

Share a Story

One important way parents can help their children learn respect for others, self-control, or other aspects of responsibility is through the use of fables or stories. You can read to your child, and you can encourage your child to read on his own.

What to do:

  • Turn off the T.V. or other distractions.
  • Find stories that exemplify important aspects of character that your child might enjoy.
  • Talk to your child about the behavior of different characters in the story. Ask your child how some of the behavior might apply to your own lives.
  • Share some stories or books that you have found meaningful with your child. (It is important for your child to see you reading and enjoying stories as well.)
  • Come up with your own stories. These can be family stories, such as baby stories (when your child was little. . .) that can become a part of your child's personal history.

Stories can be good ways to learn important lessons. Your child can identify with characters in meaningful situations without your having to lecture.

Parents and the Schools

Parents need to work with teachers and other parents to ensure that children are brought up well. An African proverb says, "It takes an entire village to raise one child." It is important for parents and other adults to cooperate in order to have common goals for them. Close communication is essential.

Parents can visit with teachers to discuss ways they and the school can reinforce the same lessons about good character. Children are less likely to do much homework, for example, if parents let them watch television for hours.

Parents can learn from teachers what their children are studying and what interests them. A teacher or school librarian can provide good ideas for activities to do at home.

Parents can cooperate with each other, too. They can agree on standards of supervision at parties and on entertainment. Some parents may be free to escort children to museums, libraries, athletic events, and extracurricular school activities, when others are not. Taking turns can provide better opportunities for all the children.

Source: Helping Your Child Learn Responsible Behavior
Updated December 1995

Reviewed by athealth on February 5, 2014.