What’s the difference between rules and responsibilities? One is a more effective way to teach ownership and accountability in your child.
“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 over a set schedule and agenda. Staffers allowed them to roam and decide which activity they wanted to do, from bread making to dance to sewing.
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 campers had four responsibilities and guidelines:
- Safety first
- Take care
- Have fun
I was intrigued.
But I also wondered whether these responsibilities could replace typical rules. So I created “what if” scenarios and behaviors to put this idea to the test.
“What if someone hurts another child?” I asked him. Sure negative behaviors like this would warrant a rule.
“That kid isn’t being respectful when they hurt someone,” he replied.
“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. That person isn’t taking care of the things.”
It seemed that whatever scenario I threw at him that would usually need a “rule” was easily addressed by one of the responsibilities.
Beyond semantics, what I noticed was the attitude and expectations demanded from kids. 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.
Putting it into practice
In Parenting with Purpose, I discussed the benefits of giving 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 rules and responsibilities. Of course, “rules” isn’t a bad word or something we need to drop from our language. After all, they do exist and serve a purpose, from classroom rules to local laws.
But I started saying “responsibilities” instead to see if we could use it more. I wondered if it could make a difference in how I communicated with my kids.
At one point, my then-toddler 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 need to take 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.”
Maybe your child refuses to do her chores. You might say, “You’re not being responsible for taking care of your stuff.” Or let’s say she stood on a pile of picture books, you could remind her that she isn’t being responsible for her safety.
And rather than cleaning up at the end of the day because “that’s the rule,” she owns the responsibility of taking care of her belongings. No longer will she clean up because of rules she has to follow. Instead, she does so because she wants to be a responsible person.
Responsibilities hold kids accountable
From toddlerhood and above, kids can bear many age-appropriate responsibilities. They can carry their dishes to the sink and wash their laundry. They know better than to treat their siblings without mutual respect or to jump on the couch. And they certainly know how to have fun.
But if they only followed rules and obligations, they might do these tasks without understanding why, or grudgingly and with resentment. But with responsibilities, they lead, own the task, put in the extra effort, and rise to the expectations set before them.
Get more tips:
- How to Get Kids to Do Chores (Without the Constant Reminders)
- 7 Surprising Reasons Kids Need Responsibilities
- How to Get Your Kids to Clean Up After Themselves
- 4 Benefits of Teaching Kids Responsibility
- How to Get Kids to Listen Without Yelling and Losing Your Cool
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