Parenting Talking Point

Giving Kids Responsibility

Boy Crossing River Slovakia
Written by Stuart Wickes

Talking Point 4: Responsibility

Did you catch the story about Jessica Stillwell this week? The mum who grew tired of tidying up after her kids so decided to go on strike; without telling them. It was five days before her crew noticed there was a problem, five long mess strewn days according to Jessica’s blog. But in the end they got it; realised it was their mess and tidied up. A creative lesson in responsibility.

Kids playing with fire

Do we trust our kids enough? Is giving responsibility playing with fire?

Do we do too much for our kids?

It’s a bit of a curly subject around our house for while I like to give responsibility, I think Kirstie’s a bit quick to take it back.  I notice it around the small stuff. When Kirstie was away in Germany recently the kids made their own packed lunches. But since she got back some of them have stopped. Yet they don’t go to school lunch-less.

“Look, it’s quicker for me to do it,” pleads Kirstie. And maybe she’s right. There’s certainly less nagging involved. But what does it teach?

Then there’s the Scout Navigation Camp Matt’s going to this weekend.

“Have you got your stuff ready?” I ask. He shrugs. I know he hasn’t, but I’m not going to do it for him. And I know Kirstie’s already been through his kit list. It’s obvious when I catch her coming out of the attic with a compass, whistle and survival bag; they’re not for her handbag. I’m able to persuade her she should let him organise himself, but it’s not easy letting go.

“I’m still doing his food shopping,” she insists, “to make sure he’s gets the right food.”

But why do this for him? Why not give him £10, get him to make a list and send him shopping. He’s more than capable, if we give him the opportunity, maybe coach a little, and let him feel responsible. After all he’s supposed to be learning to do it for himself. And isn’t that what we really want?

Boy Crossing River Slovakia

Taking responsibility involves facing consequences too. For parents and kids.

We have to give responsibility not take it away

But of course he has to know it’s his to do. No opt-outs or get-outs. No mummy will do it for me. When we do stuff for our kids all the time, what do we really teach them?  That we love and care for them? No, that they are not responsible. And that we’re mugs!

As a parent I often forget that in my relationships with the kids I’m part of a system, a dynamic. We’re not separate; their behaviour and reactions are entwined with mine.  If I want them to do something, I have to do something too, like stop doing it for them.

Lunches and camp kit aside, I think kids are capable of far more than we give them credit for. I never thought a five year old could pitch a tent or a ten year old could cycle tour 1,000 miles in a summer, until I gave them the opportunity to do it.  I’m not advocating dumping chores, giving responsibility without limits or over-stretching kids to see what they’re capable of. I’m just saying giving responsibility is good for them and it’s good for you. Isn’t it?

Talking Point

Responsibility; sometimes we give it and sometimes we take it away. What do you give your kids responsibility for? How do you stop yourself taking it away? 

Join the conversation

Talking Point is our series of short opinion posts where we pick a photo from the archive, post a talking point and invite you to join the conversation. Leave a comment with your thoughts or tell us what the photo says to you. 

About the author

Stuart Wickes

Stuart's the adventure addict half of the team, always trying to persuade the family to get out, do more, go further. As co-founder and co-director he handles the business, creative, design, technical and publishing aspects of the project. He is our chief photographer and videographer. With training as a professional learning and development consultant. an engineer and musician, his contribution is eclectic and unpredictable!


  • I don’t have kids yet, but I think responsibility is important. I like to give my fiance different tasks and then we are both proud of the trip we’ve planned together.

    • That feeling of shared ownership makes a big difference to a trip. A shared vision is so much more powerful and engaging. And it stops all that ‘it was your idea’ nonsense, especially if things go wrong! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  • There’s a tough one, letting them take exactly the right amount of responsibility, at every age. As much as they can handle, a bit less so they still can breathe and enjoy childhood, a bit more so the target is always ahead of you? And how do you find out the exact amounts so the carrot batter doesn’t get gloopy? Trial and error? Do It Right The First Time?

    You once wrote about leading Hannah across a stream. The big risk was getting wet all over. I once let junior ski ever so slightly too fast, didn’t even see the big risk. He broke a leg. Now that, too, has healed, fortunately life almost always grants you second chances.

    I doubt it’s about anyone not wanting an autonomous child, it’s about timing the right amounts. As always, it’s parenting without a handbook.

    • A curly one indeed! The business of assessing risks and consequences, even perceiving that they exist at all is so full of subjective and personal interpretation. I think you’re right it’s about trying to judge the right amount at any time, not dumping the child – a mixture of challenge, responsibility and support. And always without a handbook. Come on, how much fun would it be to follow a handbook anyway? What you say about second chances is pertinent too – we need that skill to know when the consequences may be too severe or serious to justify the risk. A lifelong project!

  • I think moms frequently fall into the “it’s easier to do it for them” trap. I do. Kids are running late for school. They can spend 10 minuts fumbling with shoes and zippers or you can have it done in 2 and maybe they’ll actually catch the bus. It’s reasonable but do it too often and it does breed helplessness. Not sure what the answer is, other than restructuring our lives so there is more room for trial and error?

  • That is such a tricky question b/c it leads you down the path of the kids not “needing their mom or dad” anymore….. I give my kids tons of household responsibilities that are expected – sorting laundry, cleaning bathrooms, making bed, feeding the dog, doing the dishes – just enough to teach them that maintaining the house is done as a team. I have tons of friends who don’t do anything like that. This year, my oldest asked if she could be responsible for her schoolwork w/o mom checking it – I swallowed hard and told her yes. She has since gotten a terrible grade on a test but learned a HUGE lesson about studying, test taking, and asking questions when you are confused. And, she is still in control of her schoolwork!

    Thanks for linking up this week. Love your questions!

    • So true. Childhood is a journey from dependence to independence and that does raise all kind of feelings which can get in the way of ‘letting go’ giving more freedom and the like. You can also feel very ‘useful’ and ‘important’ as a parent when you’re doing stuff which can be a kind of ‘selfish’ reason to carry on helping out. I guess failure and mistakes are part of the process too, on both sides. Like Thomas said earlier, there’s no manual or sure fire rules. Thanks for commenting.

  • it seems to me often parents start off by giving their kids responsibility for things the kid don’t particularly care about — like washing the dishes, getting their papers ready for school, making their lunch. then they stand over the kids and nag that it’s not being done to the parents’ standards.

    better, i think, to start by giving the kids responsibility for things they *do* care about — because 1, when they mess up THEY will learn the lesson and it won’t ripple backward to us, and 2, they are truly self-motivated. and i would argue they feel much more pride when they accomplish it. who cares about doing the dishes well? not me. who cares about doing your own work well? pretty much everyone.

    • What an interesting point! Self motivation comes so much easier around things that matter to you. But it still leaves the questions of what to do about the mundane. I mean that stuff matters too doesn’t it? It’s just not so interesting or appealing. Great food for thought. Thanks for commenting.

      • Well, I’m on your side when it comes to the mundane. Natural consequences all the way. 🙂 If they forget, they forget, and then they find out why it actually is important!

        But I think letting them become responsible for things they care about helps them grasp why those mundane things need to be done — cart before the horse, as it were.

        And building up their feelings of competence and maturity might make them take those mundane responsibilities a little more seriously.

          • Stuart, what happens is the script mixes pre-filled fields (after you’ve been here before) and fills them all with the web address. I noticved that earlier (and fixed it manually on each post), but haven’t come around to telling you yet.

          • Admit it Stuart, you meddled with that comment form and added the Twitter username and Facebook URL fields? They and website all share tabindex=3. Javascript and Ajax are martial arts, remember that!

          • I wish I knew what you were talking about. Ajax is something my mum used to use to scrub the sink. And Java either a place or a cup of coffee. I’m a little out if my depth on the tech side, my life as an engineer more a memory than present reality. However I have someone who may understand and be able to fix. Given time. Patience my friend and in the meantime check your entries!

        • Yes, interesting points, both about where to start and on letting consequences flow. Ironically Matt went off to Scout nav camp tonight without his map and compass! I had to laugh. And then figure out a way to get them to him. Couldn’t face him being lost in the hills. Or left out for the weekend. Last laugh on me then! 🙂

  • This is a timely post for me, as I am currently on a household strike. It’s day 9 now and my husband only just noticed it last night: “Why is there so much crap everywhere?” Hmmm. Did anything get picked up or put away? No. We’ll see how much longer I have to continue.

  • Definitely an interesting discussion point! I like Lori’s suggestion of giving the kids responsibility for things that they care about.

    I think it can be a bit harder for moms to step back and let the kids do some things for themselves – we are always going to worry about whether they have the right food packed, warm enough clothes etc. I have two daughters that are almost 7 years apart and I think that I’m doing a better job of handing over responsibility to the younger one and in some ways she can be more responsible than her older sister. I guess I have learned that the world isn’t going to fall apart if she does something for herself but not quite the way that I would have done it.

    I think I may follow Sonja’s lead though and try a household strike – I’m not sure anyone in my household would notice if I stopped picking up after them though! 🙂

    • Yes, I thought Lori made a great point there too. I’d like to think I get better at parenting with the later kids too; the first ones are such an experiment! Thanks for commenting.

  • Because we’re travelling longterm my 11-y-o has quite a lot of responsibility. We do exercises such as walking himself home in a strange city, or going to the shop in a strange city, and he’ll typically pack his own bag for flights etc, and when we have apartments he’ll do dinner once in a while.

    That said… It is a hell of a lot easier to do things like preparing lunch rather than nag a kid to do their own, unless you’re prepared to follow it through to the extent that they’re late for school, or don’t have lunch, which is the sort of exercise in responsibility most schools frown on.

    Why not have one evening a week where each child cooks dinner? That’s a responsibility, but it’s not one where you and they are going to get in the neck at school/scout camp if it doesn’t work out. My aunt has three boys and they were all cooking dinner at 11.

    • There must be a whole host of different things to consider when you’re travelling long term – different risks, consequences and unfamiliar environments. Quite a different context & scope for responsibility. And within that like you say lots of small and important stuff too. I’ve had my dinner cooked a few times by the kids, never thought about making it a regular thing though.There’s food for thought!.

  • My boys are scouts working on their Family Life badges right now, and I’m loving their willingness to take on responsibilities like making dinner and helping younger sis with homework. Perhaps it will stick even after the badges are earned.

    Sometimes I make a decision to give them more responsibility, like managing their own homework, and it’s so hard for me to not interfere when I see them heading down a bad path such as running out of time to study for a test. The only way that I can stick to my decision and not start nagging is to remind myself that it’s better for them to fail and learn from their mistake now instead of when they’re off at university when I won’t be around. The stakes are lower now, and the consequences they suffer are less when they’re young.

    Having said all that, hubby forgot to pack underwear for our last trip. I took pity on him and threw it in the luggage. No way was I going underwear shopping on vacation!

  • While I think you make some good points, I’m uncomfortable with how you put your wife in the role of doing the “wrong” thing, while casting yourself in the role of doing it “right”. And also making that “wrong” thing a female trait.

    Hmm, a bit too much stereo typing and finger pointing for my liking…

    Women and men are so much more interesting and complex than this.

    • Hi Nina, Maybe you’re right and I agree about the complexities of all humankind but the piece does reflect a truth and dynamic in our relationship and one which Kirstie recognises too. Of course we both ‘believe’ we’re right and at the same time know in truth neither of us is because of the very complexities you mention. Thanks for commenting and challenging. It made me stop and think. 🙂

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