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You’re Not the Boss of Me – Teaching Responsibility

I can remember vacationing as a young child in Pennsylvania Dutch Country and staying at a Mennonite farm. While the dog giving birth to puppies was certainly a trip highlight, what I remember most about that long weekend is something unusual I witnessed at the grocery store. I watched an Amish man push his shopping cart to his horse-drawn buggy at the edge of the parking lot, unload it, and return it to the front of the store. Some thirty years later, this single act of responsibility stands out in my mind than any other.

Betsy Brown Braun writes, “Children in whom responsibility is cultivated at the earliest ages, who are allowed plenty of time and opportunities to become responsible, are not brats. They see a connection between their actions and the consequences of their behavior, both positive and negative, and they learn to be accountable for the same.”

You’re Not the Boss of Me argues cultivating responsibility in your child is not just about learning to accept responsibility but parents inviting, giving, and expecting it. Braun explains how “children today are not raised to feel that they play an important role in the family.” If you think about it, she’s right. “Hundreds of years ago, children as young as four or five were responsible for tasks that we can’t imagine giving to a twelve-year-old today.”

Unfortunately, it is easier to sabotage a child’s development of responsibility than to encourage it. Whether we’re rushing them along, thinking we can do a better job, or simply frustrated from repeatedly nagging so we do it ourselves, Braun argues we often rob our children of the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves.

Here are some of Braun’s best “tips and scripts” for teaching a child to be responsible:


  • · Stick to your own commitments and insist that your child do the same. (You may have to review The Balanced Mom by Bria Simpson to make sure you haven’t overcommitted.)
  • · Discuss with your child how you make good choices. (In teaching, we can this a “think-aloud.” I find I do it so much my husband has to stop me from doing it for him.)
  • · Let your child know what meeting her responsibilities does for you or for the family. For example, “Because you sorted the laundry, I had time to bake cookies for the family.”
  • · Post visual readers of chores. (For the nonreader, she suggests, a pictorial list.)
  • · Don’t be a nag! Part of learning to be responsible is remembering to meet your obligations.
  • · Allow your child to experience the consequence of not making responsible choices.


Having seen the positive impact of consequence during my years as an elementary and middle school teacher, I really liked the s ection of You’re Not the Boss of Me that dealt with consequences. Braun makes a persuasive case for natural consequences versus the illogical consequences parents often threaten. “The four-year-old didn’t clean up her toys so she can’t have a playdate. The third-grader didn’t do her homework, so she can’t have dessert.” Braun is right when she argues, “Illogical consequences don’t teach lessons that last.” My second grader has only forgotten her library book once since kindergarten because, when she did, I refused to go home and get it for her. She didn’t like being one of the kids that kept the class from earning the promised reward.

The reality is every time it’s raining and my car is loaded with kids and groceries, I tell myself, ‘Just leave the cart in the parking lot. Everybody else does.’ But I can’t because I can still picture that Amish man, taking responsibility for himself, and I can’t help thinking what kind of wonderful world it would be if we all did the same. Of course, this begs the question, “What’s it going to take to make my daughters feel the same way?”


Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.

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