By Dr. Josh Mulvihill
My wife and I decided that our children were getting old enough to leave them home alone for short periods of time, so we thought that a fifteen-minute walk down our country gravel road would be a good place to start. We told our children, “You have one job—safety! Make sure everyone is safe.” It seemed simple enough, and we thought, “What can go wrong in fifteen minutes when we are only a couple of blocks away?” It turns out that a lot can go wrong. When we turned into the driveway at the conclusion of the walk, our son came bursting out the back door, screaming at the top of his lungs, holding a rag over his mouth. When he removed the rag, tooth chunks fell to the ground.
After we left for the walk, the children decided to play baseball. In the house. With a full-sized bat and ball. Our son was hit in the mouth with the bat when he was rounding third, headed for home, and his sister had a major league-worthy bat flip after a solid single. Our children didn’t do so well with the small responsibility they were given. It was a teachable moment for our children. We talked about how freedom comes with responsibility, and those responsible with little are often entrusted with more responsibility. We spent thousands of dollars to repair our son’s tooth, but the repair always breaks off, leaving him with half of a front tooth. It is a visual reminder to our children that irresponsible decisions are costly and can be lifelong. God has used that experience, and our children have grown in personal responsibility.
Responsibility is learned through the combination of age-appropriate opportunity plus accountability. It is an art for parents to determine how much responsibility a child is ready to handle. We’ve tried to avoid two opposite ends of the spectrum, giving a child too much responsibility too early or not enough responsibility for their age or maturity level.
Responsibility is the fruit of accepting ownership for something and is displayed through initiative, dependability, and quality effort. Children are by nature irresponsible, so parents need to be prepared to provide unconditional love and see failure as an opportunity for growth. We’ve learned to celebrate small successes when a child is responsible, as this builds confidence, encourages the child to take good risks, and helps them believe they can accomplish difficult tasks.
When a child is young, the parent does everything for the child. Over time, responsibility needs to be transferred to the child so that by the time the child leaves home, they are responsible with time, tasks, money, and the demands of adult life. The ultimate goal is self-government, the ability to exercise all functions without intervention from an external authority.
Our children are learning responsibility by doing age-appropriate chores at home, serving at church, and caring for animals on our small hobby farm. Our oldest son is sixteen and often leads worship for the children’s ministry, which teaches him responsibility through planning songs, coordinating volunteers, and going to bed on Saturday evening at a reasonable hour, so he is well-rested on Sunday morning.
We do not shelter our children from the consequences of failure, as this is a powerful teacher. If a child is irresponsible and breaks something, he or she must pay for it. Recently, one of our children broke a plastic shelf inside our refrigerator door. The replacement part cost $48, which we could have purchased. Instead, our son had to earn the money and replace the item. In the process, he learned responsibility.
We purposefully provide opportunities for our children to be responsible for tasks that stretch them. Our ten-year-old is reading to our six-year-old to help our youngest child learn to read. Our twelve-year-old played Taps on his bugle for his great-grandfather’s funeral and is often tasked with cooking dessert for a family celebration. We have found that children meet, and often exceed, high expectations and feel honored to be entrusted with a big responsibility.
The opportunities to teach children responsibility are endless—every task, whether small or large, is a building block to teaching a child responsibility. Helping your child learn personal responsibility is an essential aspect of discipleship that will bear fruit in your child’s life and be a blessing to others. How can you help your child learn personal responsibility starting today?
Suggestions for Age-Appropriate Tasks to Teach Responsibility
Determine how much responsibility your child is ready to handle based on his or her maturity level. Some of these tasks may require supervision.
Ages 2 and 3
Pick up toys and books.
Dust with socks on their hands.
Help make the bed.
Put dirty clothes in the hamper.
Help feed pets.
Ages 4 and 5
Put away toys after playing.
Help with preparing food.
Help with putting away groceries.
Help with setting and clearing the table.
Ages 6 to 8
Take care of pets.
Sort and put away laundry.
Take out the trash.
Keep their room clean.
Ages 9 to 12
Load and unload the dishwasher.
Help prepare simple meals.
Operate the washer and dryer.
Clean the bathroom.
Ages 13 to 18
Prepare meals for self and the family.
Mow the lawn and do other yard work.
Deep clean the kitchen and bathrooms.
Wash and vacuum the car.
Shop for groceries and other essentials.
Dr. Josh Mulvihill is the Executive Director of Church and Family Ministry at RenewaNation. He served as a pastor for nearly 20 years, serves on the board of Awana, and helps to provide leadership to the Christian Grandparent Network. He holds a Ph.D. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Biblical Grandparenting, Preparing Children for Marriage, Biblical Worldview, and 50 Things Every Child Needs to Know Before Leaving Home. Josh is married to Jen, and they have five children. Josh blogs at GospelShapedFamily.com.