Responsibilities are an more effective way to teach ownership and accountability. Learn the difference between rules and responsibilities.
“At camp, we don’t have rules,” my then-five-year-old told me. He attended a summer camp that promoted free play and choice. Staffers allowed them to roam and decide which activity they wanted to do, from bread making to dance.
I loved this model and appreciated that the camp encouraged self-initiative and decision-making. I understood the benefits of free, independent play and the ability to make their own choices.
But no rules?
“We have no rules,” he continued. “We have responsibilities.”
The difference between rules and responsibilities
He went on to explain that, despite having no rules, the kids had four responsibilities:
- Safety first
- Take care
- Have fun
I was intrigued. I then created ‘what if’ scenarios with my son. I wanted to see if these four responsibilities could take the place of rules.
“What if someone hurts another child?” I asked him.
“That kid isn’t being responsible for respect.”
“Well, what if someone made a mess? Don’t they have a rule for keeping things in order?” I challenged him.
“That’s the ‘take care’ responsibility. He isn’t taking care of the things.”
You can see the switch from ‘rules I must follow’ to ‘responsibilities I own.’ Rules limit—you can’t do this, you must do that. Responsibilities encourage kids to rise above and meet higher expectations.
In Parenting with Purpose, I discussed the benefits of giving kids responsibilities:
Trust is placed when giving responsibilities. Not only do you entrust your child to do the task correctly, you also send the message that you expect her to do so.
Since that conversation, I’ve been more mindful of the difference between rules and responsibilities. It’s not a bad word or something we need to drop from our language. After all, rules do exist and serve a purpose.
But I started saying ‘responsibilities’ instead to see if the word could take its place. And who knows, make a difference in how I communicated with my kids.
Last night, my two-year-old stood a foot away from the television while it was on. I was about to blurt out, “Sit on the couch—that’s the rule.” Instead, I said, “Sit on the couch—you’re not taking care of your eyes.”
It sounded bizarre (Who talks about taking care of eyes?). But it was more accurate and, perhaps, an incentive to sit on the couch than just because ‘it’s the rule.’
Just today, I saw another example of the rules and responsibilities lingo. One of my two-year-olds refused to pick up the crayons he let drop on the floor on purpose. His brother then observed, “You’re not being responsible for taking care of the crayons.”
And when another stood on the dining bench, I said that wasn’t being responsible for keeping safe.
Switching from responsibilities to rules held my kids more accountable. Rather than clean up at the end of the day because that’s the rule, my kids own the responsibility to doing so. No longer do they clean up because of these strange rules they must follow. Instead, they do so because of the responsibilities we expect them to do.
At this point, my kids at two- and six-years-old are old enough to bear responsibilities. They carry their dishes to the sink. They place dirty clothes into the hamper and know better than to treat one another without respect. And they understand the importance of taking care of their belongings.
With rules, they follow, sometimes without understanding why. With responsibilities, they lead. They own the task and know what’s expected of them.
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