After one my talks to parents of young children, a mother asked about when she should start teaching her toddler responsibility. My answer was a little long winded, really unusual of me of course, but I’ll give you the gist of it.
I believe that almost from birth parents and children begin to negotiate parent-child contracts. These are, of course, implicit and non-verbal. They are communicated through our interactions. One of these contracts is what I call the freedom/responsibility contract. As parents we reward our children for demonstrating responsibility and withhold rewards when they fail to do what they are capable of doing. Obviously, these contracts have to be rewritten as the child matures and is more capable of taking on more responsibility.
To illustrate, suppose a toddler, for whatever reason, insists on tearing pages out of the books he or she is looking at. After several reminders that books are for reading and not for tearing, we remove the books so that the child no longer has access to them. Because the toddler did not act responsibly, when he or she was perfectly capable of doing so, the child loses the corresponding freedom. In the same way, suppose the toddler chooses to mark up the walls with the crayons and not the coloring book. Again, after several reminders that walls are to keep things quiet, not for coloring, the child loses the freedom to use the crayons. What is so important, and where some parents out of the goodness of their hearts, make a mistake, is not to follow through, and take away the freedom. But if you do follow through on the freedom/responsibility contract, children do get the idea.
In the same way as children get older, the contract again has to be rewritten.
Suppose the first grader is told that if he or she picks up her toys and puts them away, they can watch a particular television program. Again it is important to make the task clear that toys are not furniture, you have to put them away when you are not using them. If the child puts away the toys, he or she gets to watch the program, but if the child refuses, he or she does not get to watch the program.
In this way the child learns that freedom is never absolute and is always dependent upon a demonstration of responsibility. If we are consistent in this practice, by the time a young person is adolescent, he or she will have internalized the contract.
The teen will understand, to illustrate, that if he or she does not come home at a designated time, that the freedom to stay out late again will be restricted.
To some parents this may seem a little hard hearted. Yet the adult world works along the lines of the same contract. We are free to the extent that we obey the laws set by our society. Teaching children the freedom/responsibility contract thus prepares them for responsible citizenship as well as for self-discipline.
By Professor David Elkind