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  Helping Your Child Learn Responsible Behavior
U.S. Department of Education.

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As parents, sometimes we think that we must set aside particular times or create special situations in order to teach our children. But that is far from the truth when it comes to learning responsibility. While it is important to have some times together when you won't be disturbed, the most ordinary situations in everyday life are filled with opportunities for sound teaching, if parents pay attention to them.

This booklet contains activities to encourage the habits of responsibility in your child. Most of them are not, however, the kind of activities that you can do together for half an hour once a week. Instead, they are more like rules of thumb, ideas to build on. They illustrate the concepts introduced in the previous sections. They should stimulate your own thinking and your own ideas.

Just remember one thing: teaching our children about responsibility doesn't mean that we can't laugh or that we have to be grim. Our children should see that we can be serious about our principles, while still being able to play and have fun.

Dad, can I show you what we did in ballet class today?


It was hard. We had to get way up on our toes and twirl around like this.

Great. Let me try it...oops! Now, what's so funny about that? Well, OK. I guess we all aren't as graceful as you are.

Getting To Know Others

Children need to be shown and taught respect for others. Other people have feelings and hopes, just as we do. We have much to learn from each other--from people who live far away and from those who lived long ago.

What to do
1. Set a good example by acting respectfully toward others. Always make it clear that prejudice is wrong and that all of us are equals, no matter our color, gender, or background.

2. Show an interest in learning about and from others - from neighbors and relatives, and from books about our own and other civilizations. Tell your child interesting things you have learned.

3. Encourage your child to learn about many different lands and people, to learn more than one language, and to read stories about children from all over the world. Show your child how you try to see things from the point of view of others.

4. Listen attentively when your child wants to tell you about interesting things discovered about history, geography religions, art, and ways of life.

We can help our children understand that there are often things to learn from those who lived in the past and from those whose lives are different from our own. We can teach our children to behave respectfully toward people and not pre-judge them. Sometimes, however, we must make it clear that some people behave in ways that are harmful, and such behavior should not be tolerated.

Magic Words, Caring Deeds

The magic words are "please" and "thank you." There are other manners we are constantly teaching our children as well.

What to do
1. Show your children the manners you expect at home first. The next time you eat dinner together, have the children pretend they are eating in a restaurant. How should they talk to each other? What should they say when the waiter brings their food? Or have the children pretend they are riding the bus. What should they do if the bus stops suddenly and they bump into someone? How should they carry a large package on the bus?

2. The next time your children mention something nice another person did for them, suggest they write a thank you note. It doesn't have to have a lot of words. It can have pictures as well.

3. You, too, can write short notes to your child to indicate your appreciation for something done right.

Children need to learn that little signs of appreciation can be very important to other people. And manners are a part of respecting and caring for the feelings of others. If we turn the chore of learning manners into a game, children will get the practice they need without embarrassing us or themselves.

As you teach the importance of manners, you may need to be honest about what your child can expect from others:

Mom, why do you make such a fuss when I eat with my mouth open?

Because it's ugly for other people to see. Good manners show respect for other people.

What's respect?

It means caring how other people feel.

If I care about them, will they care about me?

Not always, Paul. Some people don't care and never will, no matter how kind we are to them. But in our family, we do care.

Gifts From the Heart

child Have your child give a gift of himself at the next holiday or any time he wants to do something nice for anyone else.

What to do
1. Talk to your child about gift giving. What does it mean to give something to someone else?

2. Instead of buying a gift, have your child make a gift. Does your child have a special talent? Maybe your child would like to sing or write a song for a relative? Is there a chore you child could do? Maybe wash dishes for a week. Is there a special toy that could be loaned to a sister or brother for a week?

3. Use materials from around the house so that little, if any, money is spent.

4. If the gift is an activity or chore, have your child make a card with a note on it, telling what the gift will be.

5. Have your child use imagination in making an inviting package. Perhaps your child could paint a small rock and wrap it in a big box. Or make an envelope out of the comics from the Sunday newspaper.

Most young children don't have enough money to buy a gift for a friend or relative. You can teach your child that a gift that shows effort and attention can mean more than a gift from the store.

Honesty, the Best Policy

Children need to learn that benefitting from manipulating or lying to others is dishonest and unworthy of them.

What to do
1. Tell the story about the boy who cried "Wolf!" so many times to get attention that when the wolf finally came, no one believed him.

2. Ask your child if anyone has ever lied to her. How did that make her feel?

3. Be careful to follow through on things you say to your child. Commitments that may seem minor to you can mean a lot to your child. Make promises and keep them.

Our children need to learn about the importance of trusting each other in our everyday lives. Without honesty, trust becomes impossible.

There's a Monster in My Room!

Sometimes our children have needless fears that we can help them overcome.

What to do
1. Listen when your child mentions a fear, even if it sounds silly to you.

2. With your child, come up with a plan for facing up to the fear.

3. Go through the plan together. Let your child take the step that confronts the fear, although it may be helpful for you to be there.

Our children can acquire courage if we help them gain practice in standing up to their unnecessary fears. In addition, if we take seriously what are real concerns to them, they will trust us and feel safe telling us their thoughts and feelings.


Children should learn not to allow others to mistreat them. At the same time, we want them to learn how to reach understandings peacefully, whenever possible.

What to do
1. Listen to your child and find out if others are not treating your child as they should. This will encourage your child to trust you and come to you when there is a problem.

2. Help your child consider various ways of dealing with a particular problem.

3. If the problem is the way another child is behaving, suggest working out the problem by talking with the other child, or a responsible adult.

4. If the problem is another adult, however, or if your child is seriously threatened by other children, you will need to intervene directly.

A part of self-respect is not tolerating mistreatment by others. Finding appropriate ways to deal with unpleasant behavior by others is an important, if sometimes difficult, part of growing up.

Helping Out

Our children need to learn that as they get older and can contribute more, more will be expected of them.

What to do
1. As your child matures, consider additional ways your child can contribute to the household.

2. Discuss the new duties with your child. Avoid describing them in ways that seem like a punishment. Instead, you can imply that they require a new level of ability, which your child now possesses.

3. With younger children, it helps sometimes if you do the chores together and talk or make it fun. But don't do your child's work!

4. If possible, new tasks should stretch a child's abilities and encourage satisfaction in good work. Praise something done well, especially a new challenge.

Doing chores is a useful way to learn persistence and to learn that when we live up to our responsibilities we enable others to trust and rely on us.

A Job Well Done

child and dragon We need to show our children that we take satisfaction in acting properly and accomplishing difficult tasks.

What to do
1. Through your daily activities, show your children that you care about a job well done.

2. Perhaps our children's most important tasks are to work hard at school and do homework. When we check homework and point out mistakes, we help them to see how an error has arisen. When we let them correct the error themselves, we inspire self-confidence. It is also important for us to show them that we appreciate their good efforts.

3. Teaching our children self-respect does not mean complimenting everything they do. Our children also need honest criticism from time to time. When we do criticize, it should be of things they have done, not them personally.

4. Most of all, we should help our children form the self-confidence and self-respect that come from opportunities to do good work as students or as family members.

Helping children form self-respect is based on how we treat them and our own example. There are many opportunities to teach self-respect through our actions:

Dad, nobody's going to see inside the model's wing. Why do you work so hard with all those little pieces?

Because that's the right way to build the plane, Martha. It makes the wings strong when the plane flies, and that's more important than what people see. I want to make the best plane I can. Do you want to help?

Our Heroes

Many children love to look at portraits or photographs, especially if you can tell stories about the people in the pictures.

What to do
1. Select a photo of a person in your family with an impressive quality or accomplishment. Tell your child about the person and about what the person did. Perhaps your grandparents had the courage to immigrate from another country or your parents sacrificed in order to support you in school. Talk about the results of these actions.

2. Collect photographs from newspapers or magazines about impressive people in your community. With your child, talk about their actions that merit admiration or praise.

3. In addition to relatives or others, you may want to display portraits of other people who deserve our admiration and respect. A picture of Anne Frank, a young girl who wrote a diary while she and her family live in hiding from Nazi Germans and who died in a concentration camp, can inspire conversation about courage and compassion for others. A portrait of Martin Luther King, a great civil rights leader who believed in nonviolent change, can lead to discussions of great accomplishment despite prejudice. Choose people whom you admire and feel comfortable talking to your child about.

By the stories we tell about the people we admire, we can inspire children and remind them of those qualities we think are important.


Sometimes, as parents, we don't act the way we should in front of our children.

What to do
1. Try to be honest with yourself and your child if you find that you've done something that sets a bad example. Sometimes we need to think a little bit about an event to realize that we've done something inappropriate.

2. If your child has observed your behavior, it's especially important that you be honest. A simple statement is appropriate in most cases; there is no need to turn your admission into a major event.

3. Follow up with an apology to anyone you have treated badly and, if possible, by making up for what you have done.

It's important that our children, especially older ones, see that we face up to our own mistakes.

Will You Be My Friend?

Our children need to learn to choose their friends wisely.

What to do
1. Talk to your child about what is important in a friend. In addition to being fun, what other qualities are important? What about honesty, dependability, a real interest in your child's welfare?

2. Talk to your child about the type of friends to avoid. Ask if your child can remember a friend who couldn't be counted on.

Our children should learn that it is important to choose friends and companions who care about others and act responsibly.

Share a Story

One important way parents can help their children learn respect for others, self-control, or other aspects of responsibility is through the use of fables or stories. You can read to your child, and you can encourage your child to read on his own.

What to do
1. Turn off the TV or other distractions.

2. Find stories that exemplify important aspects of character that your child might enjoy.

3. Talk to your child about the behavior of different characters in the story. Ask your child how some of the behavior might apply to your own lives.

4. Share some stories or books that you have found meaningful with your child. (It is important for your child to see you reading and enjoying stories as well.)

5. Come up with your own stories. These can be family stories, such as baby stories (when your child was little...) that can become a part of your child's personal history.

Stories can be good ways to learn important lessons. Your child can identify with characters in meaningful situations without your having to lecture.

Document Use/Copyright

Publication of this book was managed by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. This book is in the public domain. Authorization to reproduce it in whole or in part for educational purposes is granted. Reprinted from National Parent Information Network Web site.

Print version published June 1993. Electronic version prepared December 1995 by University of Illinois students Brad Balster, Bryan Baylor, John Fitzpatrick, Mark Haenle, Mandy Kamin, Mike Macaluso, Ryan Metcalfe, Julie Reiher, Tim Willer, and Chris Youngren.

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