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Column: Let kids learn responsibility through their actions

Bryan Whiting

How do I teach my kids personal responsibility?

As a result of prior columns, several have asked this question. The first step is role modeling, as we discussed in April.

Beyond that, you don’t teach responsibility by talking about it; give it to them. Allow them to succeed or fail dealing with the inherent accountability of either result.



Growing up, I always had “chores” starting at a very young age. When at my grandparents’ farms my initial daily responsibility was feeding the chickens. This responsibility preceded breakfast. One day I became distracted by the climbing possibilities of the large oak tree by the barn. After a half hour my stomach was growling.

I went inside and asked Grandma “Breakfast ready yet?” “Are the chickens fed?” “Not yet,” I responded. “Breakfast’s not quite ready.” I ran outside and played with King, my dog. A while later I was back inside. “Breakfast ready yet?” “Are the chickens fed?” “Not yet,” I responded. “Breakfast’s not quite ready.” I ran outside.



I was a slow learner. It took me two more times to realize why everyone else had eaten breakfast but me. I went and fed the chickens. No one told me I had done anything wrong; no one lectured me; they let me figure it out myself, and I got the message.

As a teacher, I had parents tell me they talked with their kids about responsibility, but the behavior didn’t change. When we’re young, lectures have less effect than experiences. It’s nothing against our parents; it’s being youthful.

One lesson is seldom enough. My parents had to continue to teach me. When I was 8, Dad gave me my first rifle, a little single shot .22. He taught me how to shoot, firearm safety and lectured me on how we didn’t kill for sport. It was for protection of our animals, ourselves or for food.

I was still a slow learner. One day, out scouting for whatever vicious creatures might be around, I saw a sparrow and shot. It was the sparrow’s unlucky day. My skills were not such I should have hit a sparrow from 15 yards, but I did. Grabbing the dead sparrow, I ran to find my dad. He was excited and extolled how great a shot it was and proud I had learned to shoot so well. His final comment: “Now take the sparrow inside and Mom will show you how to pluck the feathers, clean it and she’ll cook it for your lunch.” I learned personal responsibility.

Parents often look to schools to help teach their kids responsibility, but as teachers our talking about it usually doesn’t get through. Units of study are available and used at all grade levels in an attempt to teach responsibility, but are seldom effective. Give varying types of responsibility to them whether learning, leadership or behavior and hold them accountable. More often schools and teachers tell them when to show up, what to wear, where to sit, when to go to the bathroom, when to talk, what, when and how to learn and when they’re done. Not a lot of decision-making involved.

To be sure, kids can’t be given free rein, but eliminating any decisions on their part is equally ineffective. Accountability is essential, whether it be as a result of success or failure. There can be a tendency to only hold failure accountable, but reward for success is equally important.

This reward can’t be more work. As teachers we have a tendency to say, “Wow, you did so well, let me give you some extra work to do” — not exactly motivational for most kids.

Letting them experience responsibility continues as they get older. The summer after my freshman year, the head hired man’s son and I were changing the irrigation pipe in the west field. A six pack of beer came floating down the river. It must have fallen out of someone’s pickup far upstream. The temptation was impossible to ignore. We grabbed the beer and headed for haystack at the far end of the property almost a mile from the house.

It was a hot day and the beer was equally warm but that didn’t matter. In our youthful bliss, we felt we were hidden from our parent’s view. Neither of us had ever had a beer, so three each made us more clueless than normal. It was after dinner and long dark when we made it back to our respective homes. We were so oblivious we didn’t consider the likelihood of our parents not knowing where we were considering we had missed dinner and bedtime. Consequently, after making it downstairs to my bedroom without detection I thought I was home free.

My alarm at 5 a.m. was tough enough but normal. The first indication something was amiss was my father cooking breakfast; my mother and sister nowhere to be seen. My father only cooked when we were hunting, but today he produced scrambled eggs and hash browns all cooked with bacon, sausage and the accompanying grease. My “I’m not hungry” was met with, “Eat up, we’re fencing the new pasture today.” The original plan had been to ride the new colts.

All day we dug post holes and stretched fence. Few words were said. Any request for a drink of water generated, “We don’t have time.” At 7 p.m. we were in the pickup headed back for dinner, when he spoke. “You’re getting older. We can’t always tell you what to do. You have to make your own decisions, but a man always gets his work done the next day and done well.” No lectures about drinking; no harangue about his being disappointed, but I was learning responsibility.

Bryan Whiting believes most of our issues are best solved by personal responsibility and an understanding of nonpartisan economics rather than by government intervention. He’s retired after 40 years of teaching marketing, entrepreneurship and economics. His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month.


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