Activities II -- Helping Your Child Become a Responsible Citizen

Childlike drawing of a child offering a seat on the bus to an adult male with crutches.

Magic Words, Caring Deeds

Good manners are a part of showing respect for others. Using games to reinforce manners provides children with the practice they need to learn manners without embarrassing themselves—or us.

What to Do

    From an early age, children need to see parents and other adults practicing the manners that they expect children to use.
  • Let your child know that respect for others can begin with something as basic as showing good manners, like
    • shaking hands in greeting;
    • looking someone in the eye while talking;
    • saying "please," "thank you," "excuse me," and "I'm sorry";
    • opening doors for others;
    • using expressions such as "yes, sir" and "no, ma'am" when speaking to older people; and
    • giving up a seat on a bus or subway to an older person or a person with a disability.

  • At lunch or dinner time, have family members pretend to be eating in a restaurant. Ask your child how he should talk to you and to others at the table. What should he say when "the waiter" brings his food? How should he eat the food? What should he say if he wants to leave the table?

  • Line up several chairs and have your child and other family members pretend to be on a bus. Ask your child to show you what she should say and do if the bus stops suddenly and she bumps into someone. How should she carry a large package on the bus so that it doesn't harm or bother others? What should she do if she is sitting on a bus and there are no vacant seats when an older person gets on?

  • When your child mentions something nice that someone did for him, encourage him to write a thank-you note. Explain that the note doesn't have to have a lot of words. For younger children, it also can have drawings. After he writes the note, help your child to go over it and correct spelling and punctuation. Explain that taking the time to check and correct what we've written shows respect for the person getting the note.

  • Let your child see you writing short notes to others. You might write a note to the mail carrier to thank her for helping you with a large package, to a neighbor to wish her well on a job interview or to a relative to congratulate him for winning an award.

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There's a Monster in My Room!

Sometimes children develop fears that may seem silly or unreasonable. Nonetheless, the fears are real for them, and they need to find ways to overcome them.

What to Do

    Children can acquire courage to handle real dangers if they have experience in facing their unreasonable fears. In addition, if we take seriously what are real fears to them, they will trust us and feel safe telling us other thoughts and feelings.
  • Listen carefully when your child tells you that he is afraid of something—a monster in his room or a strange sound—even if his fear sounds silly to you. Try to understand what is causing the fear. Did he see an unfamiliar shape under his bed or in his closet? Did the sound he heard remind him of the sounds made by a ghost or witch in a TV show or video he's seen? Helping your child overcome these fears will help him develop courage and self-confidence.

  • With your child, come up with a plan for facing the fear. Go over the plan together. Let your child take the step that confronts the fear, although it may be helpful for you to be there. For example, go with him to look under his bed or in his closet to see exactly what he saw. Sit with him and listen closely to the wind. Explain that the wind sometimes makes scary sounds but is harmless.

  • Don't let your young child watch scary movies or play violent video games. Research shows that the fear children experienced as they watched a scary movie can last for years, affecting their sleep and other behaviors. Children of different ages find different kinds of movies scary. For example, scary images, such as spooky creatures, frighten 3-8 year olds. Realistic violence, such as things that could actually happen, frightens 9-13 year olds.

  • Older children can be afraid of their peers' judgments. Help your child develop a sense of independence from what peers may think and what the media promotes. Support your child in adopting his own style and his own ideas.

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We don't always act the way we should in front of our children.

What to Do

    How children see us handle our mistakes and slips in behavior can have a powerful impact on their behavior and character development.
  • If you do something that sets a bad example of behavior, try to be honest with yourself and your child about what you've done. Sometimes we need to think a little about our behavior to realize that we've said or done something inappropriate.

  • If your child has observed your behavior, it's especially important for you to be honest about it. A simple statement such as, "I'm sorry, that was a bad thing for me to do," is usually appropriate. You don't need to go into great detail about why you did what you did.

  • If you have treated someone badly, let your child see you follow up with an apology and, if possible, with making up for what you have done.

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Stand Up for Yourself

A part of self-respect is not tolerating mistreatment by others.

What to Do

    Learning appropriate ways to deal with the unpleasant behavior of others is an important, if sometimes difficult, part of growing up. To build self-respect, children need to learn how to deal with problems they may have with others and how to recognize when they should ask for help.
  • Listen to your child as she talks about school, playing with others and spending time with the babysitter, a relative or a neighbor. Find out how others treat her. By listening calmly and with interest, you will encourage her to trust you and come to you if she has a problem.

  • When you face a situation in which you need to stand up for yourself, let your child see you do it with courtesy and good judgment. When someone cuts in front of you in line or charges you too much, think about your own response. Talk with your child about it—whether you did well or whether you could have done better.

  • Help your child learn how to deal with being teased. It's important because children who are easily upset by teasing may appear weak and make themselves easy targets for bullies. In her book Parents Do Make a Difference: How to Raise Kids with Solid Character, Strong Minds, and Caring Hearts, Michele Borba offers some ideas. After you've listened carefully to your child's story, help her find a "bully-proofing strategy" with which she is comfortable. Keep in mind that what works for one child may not work for another and what works in one situation may not work in another. Some strategies that your child may find helpful include:

    • Questioning the teaser with something like "Why would you say that?"
    • Responding to the teaser firmly with "I want" statements, such as, "I want you to stop teasing me."
    • Agreeing with the teaser. For example, respond to the tease, "You're dumb!" with "Yeah, but I'm good at it!"
    • Responding with humor. Say something as simple as "So?" or "Thanks fortelling me."
    • Ignoring the teasing. Learn to walk away without even a look at the teaser.
    Help your child rehearse these strategies. Stress the importance of staying calm, speaking firmly and looking the teaser in the eye, and not teasing back.

  • Explain to your child that in some situations the best way he can stand up for himself is to ask an adult he trusts for help. Let him know that it's very important to ask for help

    • if he's being bullied or feels threatened; or
    • if he's mistreated by an adult.
    Also let him know you will intervene if he's seriously threatened by another child. And, if he has a problem with an adult, take action quickly to get your child out of harm's way. Report to proper authorities anyone who tries to harm your child.

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Helping Out

Children need to learn that as they get older and can contribute more, additional responsibilities will be placed on them.

What to Do

    Doing household chores is a useful way for children to learn persistence and to learn that when we live up to our responsibilities, we show others that they can trust and rely on us.
  • As your child matures, consider responsibilities that she can take on to contribute to the family and household. Discuss the new duties with her, but avoid describing them in ways that make them seem like punishment. Instead, hint that she has been given the new responsibilities because they require skills or abilities that she now has or that they are the kinds of things that "big kids" or grown-ups are expected to do.

  • With your younger child, you may want to do the new chores together for awhile. As you do so, talk with him and make the chore fun. Do not, however, do all of the work yourself!

  • If possible, give your child new chores that will stretch her abilities and encourage satisfaction in good work. If your young child has been responsible for picking up her own clothes and putting them in the laundry basket, let her begin to sort the clothes in the basket by color. If your older child has been responsible for helping prepare dinner, let him plan and prepare family meals one night a week on his own. Praise good efforts.

  • Talk with your child about the importance of doing the new chore correctly. What happens if you put red socks in the pile of whites for the laundry? What happens if dinner is late?

  • Finally, let your child know that the new chores are not just suggestions; they are responsibilities. Make it clear that failure to meet the responsibilities will result in consequences—a loss of allowance, TV or computer privileges; no talking to friends on the phone; no leaving the house; no use of the family car; and so forth.

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More Than Chores

Explain to your child that doing chores is only one kind of responsibility. Being responsible also means answering for actions and words, being dependable and trustworthy, and using good judgment. Let your child know that showing these qualities is a good sign he is growing up and can be trusted with more responsibilities.

What to Do

    Some parents reward their children for acting responsibly by giving them rewards, such as stickers, extra TV time or even money. Research indicates that this may not be a good idea. Children need to learn that acting responsibly is its own reward. It is the expected standard for behavior.
  • Choose a TV show to watch with your child. After the show, talk with her about what you saw. Point out specific things characters in the show did and talk about whether they were being responsible. If so, why? Ask your child whether a certain character should have done something differently.

  • Pay attention to what your child says about decisions that involve doing the right thing. Make sure to correct statements such as, "It's OK. Everybody does it." Or, "It's not a problem, because no one saw me do it."

  • When you see your child act responsibly, let her know. Tell her that you appreciate her behavior and that you are proud when she acts responsibly.

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This page last modified—March 26, 2003 (pjk).

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Last Modified: 10/08/2003