Fostering Commitment and Personal Responsibility in Children

By Nicole Crawford

Your daughter comes home from a long day of school and collapses on a couch with a sigh. “Mom, I cannot go to dance tonight. I just don’t even like it anymore.” You point out she’s only been doing it for three weeks. She insists it’s not for her, and she needs to play soccer instead. As a parent, what do you do?

Even though my children are young, I’ve already found myself asking this question. Whether you’re dealing with extracurricular activities, chores, homework or family events, instilling a sense of commitment and personal responsibility in your children is one of the most important and daunting tasks parents face.

I asked Licensed Professional Counselor Anne Seay for her insights on this
common struggle. Here are a few of the recommendations she had for navigating the often murky and turbulent waters of commitment and personal
responsibility with your children.

Define Commitment
As we usher in the first months of 2016, sit down as a family and identify commitment as a family value you want to work on this year. Anne noted this is a great first step to forming strong personal responsibility. Use concrete examples to illustrate what commitment actually looks like.

frustratedAs Anne noted, “Commitment is a good value, of course, but what does it mean? There are many different ways to interpret this value. Ask your kids: What does this mean to you? How will you do this in your life? Then explain what you expect, in measurable terms. For example: ‘When I accept a part in the school play, I will be there for rehearsals. When I sign up for the debate team, I will research my topic and practice with my team.’”

Make it relatable
As parents, it’s easy to forget that kids might not have a clear idea of what our values look like in real life. When you discuss what commitment means, take the time to also discuss how it looks by using concrete examples your children will understand.

Anne suggested a few ways to make commitment relatable for children. She explained:

“Another powerful way to teach kids is to help them see the alternative. How would you feel if I committed to do something for you and didn’t do it? How would you feel if your partner for a school project decided he/she didn’t want to do it anymore? Try to speak their language… Often, kids feel there is a vast divide between them and adults, and it can be very isolating and frustrating. Bridge that gap with examples and lessons you have learned in your life.”

Be a Model
As parents, we are the first examples of commitment for our children. Honoring the commitments you make to other people – and especially to your children – is crucial to teaching your children this important value. As Anne noted, “When we honor our commitments for our children, we teach them that we can be trusted. Kids learn they are safe in this environment. When I tell you I will pick you up at 5, I do. When I tell you I will throw the ball with you after school, I do.”

That’s not to say there won’t be times you don’t follow through. When those things happen, apologize. As Anne put it, “Show you are fallible, too.” Showing your children that you are sorry communicates that broken commitments are the exception, not the norm.

ballet-girlBe Encouraging, but Realistic
When I was a kid, I wanted to dabble in every hobby and extracurricular activity I could. That’s a normal part of childhood, and it’s beautiful. Anne provided her recommendations for helping children explore and grow their natural curiosity while also avoiding burnout and quitting:

“Childhood is a time to explore new things. It is normal for kids to try lots of different hobbies, and we all want to encourage our children to have the courage to do just that. Doing so allows kids to learn who they are and what they love.

“It is easy to stick to the things we love. It only becomes tricky when we get into situations where we thought we’d love something and don’t. But the value is still the same. There are important lessons to learn, both for the kids and for the parents. Help your kids think through big decisions, such as whether to sign up for the team or the school play. Talk about what will be expected of them and what sacrifices they may need to make as a result. If you sign up for the soccer team, you will not be able to take dance class, for example. Be encouraging, yet realistic.”

Listen and empathize
So you’ve discussed the meaning of commitment, and things are off to a great start. It doesn’t stop there. Commitments can be hard on kids, so take time to check in with them frequently and see how things are going. As Anne noted, “It is important to talk to your kids, but it is even more important to listen to them. Really listen. Ask questions when you don’t understand something. Don’t assume you know what your child is thinking.”

Don’t automatically assume your child wants to quit an activity or avoid a chore because he or she is lazy or uncommitted. There might be something else going on that is driving his or her desire to break the commitment. The only way to find out is to sincerely ask and listen.

Reflect on your motives
It’s a classic movie plot: Dad is still bitter because he didn’t make the major leagues. Dad has baby, baby grows up, and dad forces his unrealized dream on his son or daughter. The ending is rarely pleasant.

Unfortunately, it’s cliché for a reason. Be sure to take a step back and identify why you want your child to make a given commitment. Anne called this “personal inventory.” She recommended asking the following question: “Who really wants the child to play concert piano? Does the child want this? Or is this something you always wanted to do but never had the chance?

“Check in with and be honest with yourself. If it is the latter, you might consider a different hobby for your child. Too often, the lines are blurred between what we want, as well-meaning parents, and what the child wants.”

When is
enough enough?

Of course, being flexible is also a big part of parenting. So how do you know when it’s OK to allow your child to break a commitment? Anne shed some light on this important question:

“You certainly do not want to force your child to continue in any activity that is causing undue stress. If the child is not eating, sleeping or is unable to concentrate because of a commitment, by all means, stop. The health and well-being of the child trumps the commitment. Always. If you reach that point, do what you need to do to protect your child’s health.”

Even in this situation, Anne noted there is a lesson to be learned: “The lesson to the child here is that if you find yourself in a situation that is harmful, talk to your parent or a trusted adult and get out,”

It can be difficult to continue with a commitment when the going gets rough. Anne noted that finding the good is a key element of not giving up: “Help the child who signs up for the soccer team and regrets it find the good in it. They may have made a new friend at soccer practice or found that they are good at running long distances, for example.”

Teaching your children to see the good in these situations will build a strong work ethic for their future and help them become more resilient young adults.

*Anne Seay has an undergraduate degree in human development and a master’s degree in counseling. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice and works with adolescents, young adults and families. Her specialties are anxiety and stress management, self-esteem, grief, life transitions and college preparedness.