Helping Children Learn Responsibility for Their Actions

toddler boy running in an office

Helping children gain the skills they need to successfully contribute to society and connect with others is one of the main jobs of parenting. Children learn these skills over years of thoughtful conversations, teachable moments, and real-life experiences. 

Below are a few ideas for teaching responsibility and accountability for actions: 

  • Set clear, reasonable, consistent expectations. Children want to please us, but if we’re vague or waffle back and forth, we set them up for confusion (and failure). Set your child up for success by making sure your expectations are fair and reasonable for your child’s age and ability. Articulate expectations clearly, review them frequently, and enforce them consistently.

  • Use mistakes as learning opportunities. Kids are going to mess up – it’s how they learn! Use these experiences to evaluate what went wrong. Offer extra support or learning if that’s what’s needed, and then try again. 

  • Offer logical consequences. Natural consequences are just one of the ways children learn. Don’t be punitive or invoke shame, and also don’t shield your child from the consequences of mistakes. A child who knocks over a glass of milk can help clean it up. A child who treats a friend unkindly can find ways to make amends.

  • Celebrate improvement. Offer sincere congratulations when your child gets it right. “I’ve noticed that you’re really trying hard to think about how other people are feeling. I’m so proud of you.” 

  • Encourage empathy skills. Children are better able to understand how their behavior and choices affect others if they have developed empathy and can put themselves in the shoes of others.

  • Lead the way. Your example of integrity goes a long way in helping your child develop a sense of responsibility. Demonstrate the characteristics you want your child to develop – honesty, kindness, decency. Discuss your decision-making process so your child can see you critically thinking, delaying gratification, or using self-control. Acknowledge when you get it wrong and let your child see you finding solutions, learning, and trying again. Life is all about growth, no matter our age. 

  • Prioritize relationships. Your connection with your child is the key for building mutual respect, friendship, and understanding, all necessary ingredients of teaching healthy interactions. 

Teaching responsibility starts when children are very young and continues throughout childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood. Small, simple efforts can yield big rewards as your child becomes a happy, confident, caring adult.   

Bright Horizons
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
toddler boy running in an office