Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Teaching Responsibility by Judy Lyden

Building responsibility in a child begins very early - in the second year. Building responsibility is a parent's job, and it begins between one year and two when children are eager to please and will often do something to please a parent. This is the time when a good parent encourages that pleasing behavior because they know it is the beginning of learning responsibility.

At two, a child should be accustomed to pleasing the parent and taking little charges onto himself like picking up his toys and helping with other tasks at home. He should take pleasure in putting the cap onto his own toothpaste, and fluffing his own pillow, and making sure his cup is above his plate. There are thousands of these little self care chores that build good habits and responsibility.

At three, children stop wanting to please mom and dad and take on the new role of pleasing themselves. That's why waiting until three to potty train a child is always so fraught with difficulties. But a trained child will not un-train himself about his habits. And threes who are trained at one and two have fewer problems with this first independence.

The definition of responsibility is simply "to step forward" to tackle the task at hand.

Many parents do so much for their children, that their children don't know how to do for themselves. And not knowing how to take his or her own coat off, or use the bathroom echos a lot of "I can'ts." A child who constantly says "I can't" is a child who has had too many things done for him. The very idea that he can't do the simplest thing is a product of a parent who simply takes over his life and lives it for him. This is not a parent's task or job. Rearing a child means letting the child.

Every child should want to step forward into the play and participate in what is going on around him or her. But many children hold back and simply watch because that is what they have been taught to do. The child has models who will either do it for him or eventually step forward and do whatever the job is for him so he doesn't have to step forward - ever.

Shyness, personality reticence is not an excuse for not doing. Shy people often have full lives of responsibility we never hear about simply because the person is quiet, shy or publicly reticent.

At school, we see it every time the bell rings, and it's time to clean up. Children who refuse to clean up or who dilly dally as if they simply can't get started to help are usually the ones who are the least responsible. These children rarely find something to accomplish with play; they are the ones who produce little art and their school work is poor at best. They are the first in line for rewards and the last in line to assume responsibility for anything.

The product of responsibility has little to do with intelligence. It has to do with stepping forward and assuming the responsibility at hand. When it is recess, the Garden School does not provide what we call "play for me toys." Our toys sit quietly in baskets all over the school. There must be 500 toys available, but not one of them is going to produce play for the child. Not one of them is a totally visual toy like game boys, video games, and other electronic toys. Children accustomed to playing with these "play for me" toys exclusively can rarely find something to play with and that's because the responsibility of making his or her own play has been forfeited by too many toys that produce the play for the child.

The failure of being able to produce play for oneself and being dependent on a toy to produce the play often results in a lesser imagination. Imagination is not repeating out loud what happened; it is not telling someone about the past. Imagination is being able to tell someone what MIGHT happen if. Use of the imagination is being able to suspend the factual and the obvious and create something altogether new - and useful.

Too many electronic toys take a toll on the production of art because art is not rote; electronic toys are rote. Instead, art is the full use of the imagination. When the imagination is not developed or suspended for rote electronic games a child fails to see the possibilities of his work and of the world around him. This takes a toll on his willingness to step forward and "do."

The ability to problem solve comes from letting the child. In years past, children were often sent on errands. This helped them learn to problem solve. Today, errands are not safe, so few children actually walk from home to the drug store, the grocery store or the neighbors to do small errands. Consequently, those problem solving activities need to be duplicated and often are not.

A good place to learn to solve problems is doing household chores. Children can learn to strip a bed, to sort their own laundry, to set a table, to vacuum, to dust and to clean the bathroom sinks. Children can do yard work, carry things, find things, and fetch. By having all these things done for the child, a parent is failing to let the child learn by stepping up to the plate and doing.

When children never participate in the care of the house or household or even the parent, they come to think of their role within the family much like the cat or the dog who is not expected to do anything but be kept. When school, sports, scouts, or any group activity comes round, they quickly freeze and say, "I can't." When the parent capitulates to "I can't," the child quickly runs back to his safety zone of people and toys who will do it for him or her.

Insisting on responsibility is also insisting on independence. "You can and you will," is the best response a parent can give to a child who says "I can't." Fear is not rearing it's head; too much parent is rearing its head.

When you think about the pattern of our lives: infancy, toddler-dom, preschool, big school, sports, junior high, high school, driving, college, job, marriage, children...there is a continual growth of independence that must be begun early. By not letting the child do in his toddler years, he is missing a boat. By not letting a child until he is forced to produce for the first time in big school is not only unfair, it's traumatic. Not only has he missed the boat, he's going to be waiting for the boat at the train station.

Best fix? Start small with some daily "I can do it all by myself" chores. Stop doing those little things for children that they can do for themselves. Let children self help and help you with the regular tasks at hand. If there is homework - let them do it themselves first and then help. And here is something to think about - allowance. There are all kinds of allowances. One of them is time with electronics. If the child has stepped forward on his own and taken the responsibility to accomplish work without nudging, then it seems, he can have the luxury of his favorite past time.

Responsibility is not a one person's game in a household. It's everybody's game, and with children, it's their game to learn right along with walking and talking.

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