With the right guidance, your child will be able to make good decisions on his own.

How to Make Kids Accountable for Their Actions

by Julie Christensen

So your little one leaves a trail of shoes, toys and dishes in her wake. You wonder if she'll ever learn to be responsible. First, remember that children learn gradually through consistent, patient guidance. And some kids are naturally more concerned with rules than others. Whether your little one's the rule-bound sort or a free-spirited imp, you can help teach accountability by insisting on basic rules of the house, such as, "We take care of ourselves, each other and our things." A rule like this pretty much covers everything, without being overly strict or detailed.

Teach by example. Kids are watching all the time and learn mostly from what you do. Do you admit to mistakes and fix them, or do you blame others? Are you honest in your dealings? If a clerk gives you extra change, do you give it back or keep it? Do you take care of yourself and your things?

Set reasonable expectations and limits for kids. Your preschooler probably won't remember to make her bed perfectly every morning, but she can start working toward that goal. Young children understand more than we often give them credit for. Tell your child calmly and patiently what you expect, as well as the consequences for misbehaving. Then trust your child to comply.

Follow through with consistent consequences when kids misbehave, starting when your child is still a toddler or preschooler. We often think that we have to be punitive or overly strict for consequences to be effective. Actually, a kind but firm approach usually works better. For example, say your little one yells and runs in the grocery store. You've explained the rules as well as the consequences. The first time your child starts acting up, don't beg, scold or threaten. Simply follow through on the agreed-upon consequence. In this case, it might be that the child must sit in the grocery cart or that you actually leave the store and return by yourself later. When explaining expectations, you can also discuss the positive rewards for good behavior. For example, "Today, if you sit quietly in the cart as we shop, you can pick a treat to take home."

Offer another chance. So your little one messed up -- again. Nobody's perfect, and kids are going to make mistakes. After doling out the consequences, talk about what your child can do differently next time. Make amends, if necessary. Say your child hit another child on the playground. The consequence might be that your child has to leave the playground. Additionally, to fix the problem, your preschooler might need to apologize to the other child. Afterward, talk about how to handle conflicts on the playground next time. Let your child help come up with ideas. Kids need to know that they can try again when they make mistakes.

Avoid "rescue parenting." Sometimes you'll have to manufacture a consequence to teach kids responsibility, but often life itself is the best teacher. If your preschooler leaves her favorite toy outside and it gets ruined, she'll be devastated, of course. Instead of rushing out to buy a new toy, though, simply say something like, "I'm so sorry your toy got ruined. What can you do to make sure that doesn't happen again?" or "That's so disappointing. I bet next time you'll remember to bring your toys inside."


  • Guiding toddlers and preschoolers can be exhausting. Sometimes it might be tempting to ignore a bad behavior, especially if you expect a fight. Resist this urge, though. The more effort you put into patiently guiding your young child, the less work you'll have to do later. Remember, little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems. Teach your child that no means no when she's small.

About the Author

Julie Christensen is a food writer, caterer, and mom-chef. She's the creator of MarmaladeMom.org, dedicated to family fun and delicious food, and released a book titled "More Than Pot Roast: Fast, Fresh Slow Cooker Recipes."

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