July 25, 2003

Strategies for Creating Responsibility

by Les MacFarlane

A student walked into my class room the other day after an altercation with another student. The student, without prompting, told me that he had cursed at another student. He told me that while he knew he shouldn't have sworn at the student, the other student made him. There are many different ways that care givers can deal with a situation like this. One way is to take a careful look at the student's feelings and motivations and come up with some kind of a program that uses rewards and punishment to change the student's behavior in the future. As a result the student may learn to behave appropriately in a class room; however, he will also have learned that his behavior is to be controlled by others and that he should be rewarded for behaving in the manner that most children do most of the time, without rewards. A more constructive way of dealing with this problem involves teaching a child that no matter what a person is feeling he is responsible for his actions. It also involves letting the child feel the consequences of her behavior. This essay will outline how people who work with children can show them where the responsibility for there behavior liesówithin themselves.

Model The Behaviors You Want To See

Not too long ago I was at home with my two and a half year old. I looked up from reading and I realized there was hardly an inch of our living room floor that was not covered by toys. I decided it was time my daughter cleaned up the room. I helped her pick up the toys one by one, ensuring that she picked up everything that was hers. At the end of the task I looked at her, and around the room again, and I said pedantically "Now doesn't that look better?". She nodded and said "Look Dad, your books". I looked over to where I had been working that morning to see several of my books strewn on the floor and a half empty glass of water sitting beside the computer. Embarrassed, I picked my things up. Is it any wonder that my daughter had created a mess? She had simply followed the model I created for her. My daughter, like all children, is learning from the people around her all the time. If I use foul language, yell, or simply slack off from my responsibilities, she sees that and learns from it. I can talk to her all day about the benefits of not swearing, or yelling, or cleaning up her toys; but, if she sees me engaging in those behaviors I have given her an infinitely more definitive message.

This is particularly true if we as care givers make excuses for our behavior. Adults are giving children a clear message when they make statements such as "I'm sorry I yelled at you, but I was in a bad mood". The message is simple: I can excuse my behavior with my feelings. It is not me that is in control, but my feelings. The problem with a statement like this is that it is not true. Our behavior is the only thing we can control. Unfortunately, many people do not believe this. They are more interested in laying blame on others, on their childhoods, or on a diagnoses. If we want to teach our children that they are ultimately responsible for their behavior, we as adults must stand up and take responsibility for ours. For example, if we use foul language around our children we need to accept responsibility for that and maybe apologize to those around us, and work at not using that kind of language again, instead of putting the blame on them or someone else through language like "You see what you kids are doing; you're making me lose my temper". It is through the former mode of communication that we are actually going to teach our children what true responsibility is.


Along with having good role models, children need to receive the message from care givers that responsible behavior is an expectation, an un-wavering expectation. This expectation, however, must be more than simple lip service paid to the idea of responsibility. Richard and Linda Eyre, in their book Teaching Children Responsibility put it this way: "One amusing thing that we keep learning over and over about teaching responsibility is that children do exactly what is really expected of them. (And they can tell if you're faking it)." One of the most interesting phenomenons that I have seen in my time working in schools is how a student who sees four different teachers a day on his rotation will behave quite differently for each teacher. Puzzled by this I asked one student what was going on in math class that created different behavior. His response was "I know when I walk in that room she (meaning the teacher) is going to expect me to behave right".

One way that we can help create the expectation of responsibility for behavior is through assigning jobs to the child. At school this is very routine: homework is assigned, in class assignments need to be completed and so on. At home, however, it is a different story. I am constantly shocked when I talk to students and they tell me they have little or no responsibilities around the home, and if they do they are paid like professional baseball players. Chores around the house are the responsibility of every member of a household and an amazing way to teach children about getting things done. Once again Richard and Linda Eyre have a family of eight children and dedicated themselves to teaching their children responsibility. In their family each child had certain chores to do before they ate dinner. The chain of cause and effect was very easy for the children to learn: no work, no food. With young children care givers may need to remind, and assist the child, but it is possible to have them participating in chores as well. My own two and a half year old daughter is able to help make her bed, feed our two cats and fish, clean up her toys and do her laundry.

There will always be times with children, however, that they do not recognize the importance of doing what needs to be done. At these times it is important to let a child experience the consequences of her actions.


I want to be
Consequence free
I want to be
Where nothing seems to matter

Great Big Sea

There are many people who might identify with this lyric. For many, the opportunity to live without having to experience the consequences of their behavior would be wonderful. But, of course, this not reality. Reality is constantly giving us feedback about our behavior: a phone call from the phone company that we have not made our payment, a promotion for hard work on a project, a ticket for parking in the wrong spot. This is the way life is. Interestingly, many parents and care givers break up this natural feedback loop for the children they care for. These well intentioned people run interference for the child so that she never has to live with the results of her actions. When we do this a child realizes it does not matter how he behaves. His behavior is never going to effect him. In his classic book Children: The Challenge by Dr. Rudolph Dreikurs, Dreikurs expresses that this is not only wrong, but an overstepping of our boundaries: "We do not have the right to assume the responsibilities for our children, nor do we have the right to take the consequences of their acts. These belong to them" (Dreikurs, 1964).

We can begin by allowing a child to experience the natural consequences of his behavior. A natural consequence is defined simply as "the natural outcomes of behavior" (Lutz, 1999). In my work I run into many students in school who simply refuse to do the class work. Many of them say they are unable to do the work. They will say they have ADD or a learning disability and cannot do the work, before they even make an attempt. Typically, school boards have dealt with this situation by ensuring this student saw a resource teacher. This teacher will, essentially, sit over the student ensuring they did the work. Sometimes the student will do the work sometimes not. In the end, if the student does the work, the teacher has hand held the student through the exercise and has taken more responsibility for the student's education than the student himself. One school in our area has decided to change the way these students are assisted. The school continues to put resource staff in the classroom; however, these teachers help anyone who asks for help. If the student attempts to do the work and then needs assistance the teacher then helps. If a student does not ask for help, and chooses not to do the work the student has to live with the consequence of that choice which could be a failing grade on an assignment, and if it continues over time the possible failure of a grade. Many people will think this is a hard line to take with young students, but teachers and parents are not teaching their students anything by babying them through grade seven. The fact is if the student cannot put a pen to paper to at least begin an assignment they have not demonstrated the necessary behavior to gain promotion into the next grade. The child must live by his choices and reap the benefits and experience the failures. This is what is demanded of all of us in our lives, and it is probably better to learn this lesson earlier rather than later. It is only at this point that the child becomes aware that she is the only one responsible for her behavior.

Natural consequences teaches a valuable Moritist lesson: you do something or you do not. If we fail to exercise and eat well the natural consequence, for most people, is that they will gain weight and possible experience greater health problems as they age. We can have wonderful intentions to exercise daily, or avoid high fat foods, but in the end, reality does not care about our intentions. Our intentions don't keep us from gaining weight; healthy eating and exercise do. The same is true for children: they either do their homework, practice piano, or speak politely or they do not. There are consequences for both kinds of behavior.

There will of course be times where the stakes are too high to allow a child to experience the consequences of their behavior. For example, it would be unwise to allow a toddler to experience the natural consequence of her running into the road At these times care giver can use logical consequences as a way of making children responsible for their behavior. Logical consequences are "consequences with some human intervention and are logically related to the behavior" (Lutz, 1999). In the case of the toddler the logical consequence might be having to play at the back of the house, or maybe even go inside. Logical consequences, much like natural consequences, teach children that there is an equal reaction to every action and thus gains some very valuable feedback about their behavior.

For example, at the school I work at the logical consequence for disruptive class room behavior is to go and work in the crisis room. This is a room where students work individually in study carols and are not permitted to leave until the student has completed their assigned tasks and has met the behavioral expectation of the room, which is to very similar to that of the regular classroom. This is a great consequence in the sense that it is directly related to the misbehavior: if you make learning difficult for others in the class, you can't stay. The student learns that his behavior will lead to a very predictable, reasonable result. That result falls on no one else's shoulders but the student's. Students will often complain about others in the class provoking them, which may at times be true. To this staff usually the student that they are unable to control the behavior of others, all they can control is their own, and if they don't, there are consequences. This kind of consequence keeps giving a clear message: you are responsible for what you do.

It is really important to understand to that we can use logical consequences to increase behaviors, as opposed to simply trying to decrease them. For example, one counselor in a residential setting told me that when the residents helped him clean up after dinner, he would do an activity with them. He would tell the residents something like "Thanks a lot guys. You made my work a whole lot easier. Now I have time to take you out". This was a really wonderful consequence for helpful behavior.

Using these kinds of consequences with children them allows them to experience the repercussions of all of their behavior. Caregivers should look to employ these techniques wherever possible.

Reinforce Responsibility

While I was going through basic training in the Canadian Armed Forces, I was given a series of easy tasks in the early stages of my training, one of which was sewing my name into every bit of military kit. One day I had not completed the sewing on one item. My instructor, Master Corporal Pierce, came by immediately saw this and questioned me about this. I said that I had not had time to complete this task. At this point he told me in the future I'd find the time and told me to start doing push-ups; he'd tell me when to stop. About twenty minutes later, long after the point where my arm had officially turned to limp, throbbing noodles, he came back and said "Listen, the only answer to why you didn't get something done is you didn't do it". The next time I was questioned about why something wasn't done, I gave Pierce back his answer. He looked at me and said "That's right. Get it done by noon".

Pierce had a great plan for teaching responsibility: he wanted me to step up and take responsibility for my behavior, and when I did he was willing to give me some leeway and work with me to create a solution. He was reinforcing my taking responsibility. When kids accept responsibility we really need to show them through our behavior that is what they should and in fact need to do. Once my Master Corporal saw that I was willing to take responsibility for my actions, he gave me an opportunity to set things straight. This is a good way to work with kids. Everyone makes mistakes; however, the most useful thing we can do is teach them restore things to the way they were. I found this is far more useful, and effective than any punishment.


Teaching children responsibility is not easy. It is, in fact, so challenging that many teachers and care givers opt not to do it. Instead, they choose options that are often short sighted and easy . Unfortunately, it is the children who suffer. When we do not teach children responsibility we send them into the world without a skill that they absolutely need to be successful. We would certainly take objection to teachers and parents not teaching their children to read or do math, because we know how difficult life will be for those children. Why is responsibility any different? By taking the time to really teach children about the responsibility that they have for their behavior we are really teaching them something that they will use for life. As people working with children, this is our responsibility.

Les MacFarlane is trained in method of Japanese Psychology and lives in Ottawa Canada. He is currently working at St. Paul Catholic High School with adolescents with behavioral difficulties. He is married father of two and a student of Zen.

Posted on July 25, 2003 6:18 PM

Thank you for sharing this with me!

I am taking action on these suggestions.

This is my gratitude in action!

Dan Bowers

Posted by: Dan Bowers on November 22, 2007 2:17 PM

Surely there is a primary question of salience. Failing a grade is often not a meaningful consequence to an unmotivated student. The possibility of failure has meaning for adults concerned with long term outcomes, not some children who are much more short term in outlook. "so what" etc. is an often heard refrain that may well be entirely appropriate from the child's perspective.

Posted by: chris on February 3, 2004 4:32 PM
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