Future Reflections                                                                                         Summer/Fall 2005

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Helping Your Child Become More Responsible

by Sue Sheridan and Lynn Springfield

Editor’s Note: Are some children born more responsible than others? Can blind children be expected to learn responsibility? The answers to these questions can only come from one source--parents. Like all other behavior (mannerism, cleanliness, etc) children also learn responsibility from their parents. The message that a parent sends--or sometimes fails to send--concerning responsibility is a very important one. Sue Sheridan and Lynn Springfield recommend parents begin the process of molding carefree children into responsible adults early. Here is what they have to say on the matter:

All of us who are parents dream of that time in our children’s lives when they will take responsibility for their own behavior. Parents and teachers lament the fact that the children they are raising or teaching are so immature, lack responsibility, or just don’t think about what they are doing. How can we, as parents, facilitate this task of helping our children develop responsibility?

We think that responsibility, wise decision-making, and making appropriate choices are all related. They must be taught in small, meaningful steps which children practice and live with every day. An important part of this building of responsibility involves making choices and living with those choices.

Making choices has proven to be extremely important in school. Students who make choices are more motivated to carry through in the area chosen. Rate of learning has increased when students were given the option of making a choice regarding the learning. It has also been shown that students with disabilities stay with a task longer when they helped to decide some things about that task. Just the feeling of maturity, dignity, and enjoyment gained from having a part in controlling one’s own destiny through making choices is very positive. If education is a preparation for life, then choice making is an essential part of the preparation. Perhaps one of the essential elements should be…Makes appropriate choices and carries through with those choices. Choice making, however, cannot be limited to the school setting. In order to make appropriate choices and learn to live with the choices this skill must be practiced at home as well as at school. How then can this be done without disrupting the entire family?

Choosing is defined as “the act of an individual’s selection of a preferred alternative from among several familiar options.” To examine this definition a little further it involves: selection (finding an appropriate way to indicate the selection rather than “I hate that.”), by preference (knowing what one likes), from alternatives (two or more alternatives), familiar options (knowing what one is choosing and what is being discarded), and carrying through with the choice (being allowed to carry through with the choice even if parents or teachers feel it is the wrong choice).

How can parents teach this important skill? First, we as parents must realize that choices come in all sizes. During an average day there are literally hundreds of choices that our children make. Becoming aware of these choices helps us to use them to help our children develop responsibility. Some of these choices faced during an “average” day might be: what to have for breakfast, how to get to school (walk, bus, etc.), what to eat at lunch, who to eat with at lunch, what to do after school (TV, play with a friend, ride the bike or skate board, etc.), what to do first in homework, choices at dinner, choice of after dinner activities, choices of bedtime (8:30 or 9:00).

Other home choices may include what time to do certain things, what activity to do first, which chores to do, where to eat out, which shows to see, TV programs to watch, which friend to have over, and the choice of a family activity for the weekend. One weekend the daddy chooses the activity, the next the mother, then the brother, and then next the sister. They then begin the rotation again.

The activities are naturally limited because everyone participates, the expense must be reasonable, there is a limited amount of time, and the varying interests of the members of the family must be considered. This has been a great experience in seeing who has the most creative ideas and how much fun the family has together.

Even in very simple tasks, choices are involved. The child might have a choice among a number of activities, a choice of whether or not to engage in the activity, a choice as to when to terminate the activity, alternative means of accomplishing the activity and a choice of partner for the activity. If these sorts of choices are analyzed and increased responsibility given to the child, then there is a better chance of responsible choice making in later decisions. Some of the decisions many of us face are whether or not to continue with education, which friends to pursue, where to live, to marry or not, to attend church, to use drugs or alcohol, and all of the other terribly important decisions and choices that teenagers and adults make.

There are steps which might be followed in helping someone learn to make appropriate choices. First, the individual must be aware of the alternatives. This involves actually knowing what toast and cereal are if you are to make a choice of having toast or cereal for breakfast. It means having some prior experience with each of the alternatives. If one continually chooses to watch the same TV program but has never seen or heard about the others, then the choice is perhaps not a real choice. The second step is to decide what one likes and doesn’t like. Does one like comedies or programs which are more serious?

Next is deciding how to tell others of the choice. Does one tell someone or get up and turn the channel on the TV? If someone else is told of the choice, how is this done? One of the final steps in this choice-making continuum is to know that once the choice has been made, it is to be followed. This step is especially important for parents. There is a rather famous article called “The Dignity of Risk” which talks about people with disabilities making choices and being given the dignity of living with those choices. There is no dignity in having parents rush in and “rescue” a son or daughter from a choice. This is all taken in perspective, however. If the choice is especially harmful, it should not be permanent. Hopefully, children wouldn’t be allowed to choose a potentially harmful choice until they are absolutely ready to make the appropriate choice.

Finally children, just as all of us, must learn when we do not have a choice. It might be that for your son or daughter bedtime is not a choice making opportunity. Bedtime is set by you and not negotiable. This is an important distinction for you to make and your son/daughter to understand.

In order to avoid problems in this area, we suggest that you incorporate choosing early in your child’s life. If you haven’t done this, and now wish to, start slowly but with meaningful decisions to be made by your child. This may be the number made in a day or the number of decisions regarding an activity. Then increase the number of areas of choice making. Eventually increase the risk in the choices to be made. Finally, clearly teach those areas in which choice is not possible.

Although choice making is one small part of responsibility, we believe it is an important aspect. It can and should be taught and practiced in the home as well as at school. Hopefully, this is one more step on the road to a more independent, successful, and fulfilling life for you and your child.

From the Texas ACLD Key. Sue Sheridan, Consultant, Harris County Department of Education and TACLD PAC. Lynn Springfield, Professor, Mid-American Nazarene College.

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