Cultivating Responsibility

cultivating responsibility - tots to teens

How can we make an effort towards cultivating a sense of responsibility our children, not only for themselves, but others as well? The onus is on us as parents to teach them self-control, accountability, self-reflection and moral values.

Current thinking suggests that instilling in our children a sense of personal, moral and social responsibility is crucial if we wish for them to develop a sense of integrity, and empower them with a fail-safe sense of moral thinking that quality relationships are based on.

who has the steering wheel?

Children by nature often act impulsively and need to understand that they are responsible for controlling their behaviour by making choices. Self-control is the ability to make choices about how you behave, rather than acting on impulse. Children with self-control are able to pause and evaluate a situation and the consequences that will result from their behaviour before they act. By exercising self-control, children learn to make appropriate decisions and choose behaviours that will be most likely to have positive outcomes. Self-control is essential for developing positive relationships with other people, and diminishes the likelihood that children will encounter the dangerous consequences that often result from impulsive behaviour.

avoiding the blame game

Being responsible also means being accountable for your actions and decisions. If children believe that the situations they find themselves in, and anything else that keeps them from achieving their goals, is someone else’s fault, they can blame everyone but themselves for their circumstances. It is vital that we teach our children that if they do not take responsibility for their choices, they are giving power and control over to others (by playing a victim), often leaving them feeling helpless and angry. By helping our children take responsibility, we help them access confidence and feelings of control, and help them learn to make informed choices.

mirror, mirror on the wall

Reflecting on our behaviour is one of the most powerful agents in learning self-control. Just knowing about our behaviour can result in behaviour change. Research suggests that those who are able to reward or punish their own behaviour achieve significantly higher levels of performance than those who do not. By helping a child examine their own behaviour, we assist them to become more self-aware and analytical of their responses to situations. Self-reflection involves observing our performance, judging that performance by evaluating it against personal standards, and then determining the consequences for ourselves. Based on this process, people generate either self-satisfaction (which leads to self-reinforcement) or self-dissatisfaction (which lends itself to self-criticism).

doing your bit

Our children have a special role as individuals in creating and maintaining a just and fair society. Talking about social responsibility helps children realise that their personal efforts can make a positive difference in the world, and they can learn the value of helping and caring about others. Participating in community projects that are personally meaningful allows children to discover new interests and abilities, to work cooperatively, and to see group thinking in action as they observe people working together to communicate, solve problems and make decisions.

a question of morals

Moral values define what a society considers the rights and wrongs of behaviour. Often, children act with moral integrity only if there is the threat of disapproval or punishment for their actions. However, as they get older, their moral judgement develops to understand the consequences of their actions, for example, loss of trust.

Developing children’s ability to morally reason is essential as it is the foundation for all their future interactions with others.  By participating in moral discussions and discussions about values, children experience a raised awareness in their moral thinking, helping them to become morally responsible.

Ages & Stages


  • Discuss the concept and introduce the language of morals and values and why they are important to society, e.g., if you break something but no one sees, should you tell? Value = honesty.
  • Involve your child in community experiences at least twice a year, e.g., collect old toys for the children’s hospital.
  • Actively teach your child how to apologise for their actions and to rectify incidents where they have done something wrong.
  • Model for your child language which demonstrates self-reinforcement and self-critique, e.g., “I’m proud I …”, “I’m glad I …”, “I needed to …”, “In future I will try to …”
  • Whenever you see your child about to make an impulsive choice say, “Samuel, stop and think …”

5- to 8-years

  • On occasions such as car journeys, explore moral questions, asking your children to justify their responses by providing reasons for their decisions, e.g., your new friend says some mean things about your old friend, what do you do? Value = loyalty.
  • Choose an environmental area in your local community and adopt it as a family, taking responsibility for keeping it maintained.
  • When children have behaved badly, talk about the choices they made and the negative consequences that followed, and how they could have chosen alternatives that would have lead to better outcomes.
  • Whenever you see your child about to be impulsive say, “Stop and think to yourself whether what you are about to do will have a positive outcome.”
  • Involve your child in making decisions about suitable ways to reinforce or punish themselves, e.g., “If I break my sister’s toy, I need to apologise and buy a new one with my pocket money.”

9- to 12-years

  • Extend on the moral exploration by asking children to come up with moral dilemmas of their own for others to solve.
  • Assist your child to volunteer their time on issues that inspire them, e.g., collecting for guide dogs.
  • Invite your children to debate where responsibility lies in specific situations, e.g., a sportsman shows bad sportsmanship to a referee and is sent off the field, meaning his team loses their game. Who is responsible for the loss of the game?
  • Teach a process that encourages self-reflection for a specific behaviour, e.g., behaviour = helping out at home; expected standard = do at least five jobs; demonstration of behaviour = I put the dishes away, made my bed every day, tidied my toys, set the table, carried in the groceries. Evaluation = I met the standard; consequences and self reflection = mum was grateful, I feel good about myself, I am proud of my efforts and mum is taking me to the movies next week.
  • Demonstrate tangible examples of impulse control, e.g., having a bank savings account for pocket money.

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