Frank Schofield, superintendent, Logan City School District



Have you ever heard the phrase “Not my circus, not my monkeys”? This traditional Polish saying communicates the idea that we aren’t responsible for fixing situations that have nothing to do with what we perceive as our area of accountability. It often is used when an individual is presented with a problem, and they don’t want to get involved in the drama or complications related to addressing the problem at hand. From a perspective of self-care, this phrase can be a positive tool to avoid being overwhelmed with the challenges of helping others deal with their problems at the expense of addressing the responsibilities that are uniquely yours.

But what if it is your circus, and those are your monkeys? All of us are regularly faced with situations where we are required to decide whether we will assume responsibility for the monkeys in front of us. Although in many cases those may actually be our monkeys, sometimes we have to get involved because somebody else didn’t take care of their own monkeys, so now the responsibility of caring for those monkeys has been given to us.

Wouldn’t it be better if we all did just a little bit more to take care of our own monkeys? That is the focus of the work done by Dr. Karen Ruskin, Psy.D., and Alex Barvzi, a licensed clinical psychologist. They focus on the approach parents can use to help children develop  responsibility, be accountable for their choices, and eventually develop the skills and behaviors that will ensure they take care of their own monkeys. Some of their suggestions include:

You can’t suddenly spring responsibility on a teenager and expect he will know how to follow through.

Imagine your high school daughter calling you at work with the complaint: “Mom I’m hungry. When are you coming home?” You say: “Make a sandwich!” She replies: “I’ll just wait for you.” Handing out responsibility to children needs to start early. Think toddler age.

Don’t grumble and mope when it’s time to do housework. Smile and invite your son to help (even if he makes the job take longer). It’s teamwork, precious time with your child, and a lesson that will one day send him off into the world with the ability to sort lights and darks.

“When your child is invited to participate, he feels valued,” says Dr. Ruskin. “He will take these good feelings and learn to take ownership of his home.”

Play to a child’s skill level, suggest both experts. First, demonstrate how to complete small tasks. If your son wants a snack, show him where the apples are and how to wash one. Does your daughter always throw her dirty clothes on the floor? Place a hamper in her room and show her where the day-old jeans belong.

Make responsibilities age-appropriate and even use the word “responsibility,” says Alex, when informing your son about the tasks you expect him to complete on his own. It sounds grown-up and important!

And talk about it, too. Banish a tableful of dirty breakfast dishes with the line: “Now we put our plate in the sink,” as the meal ends. Use the same inclusive “we” phrases over and over to show how you can easily solve problems. Ask other family members and caretakers to follow suit. You’ll be surprised how quickly these actions become a habit for children.

Children love to help. They want to help. To them, chores don’t feel like work. Keep up positive vibes by offering specific praises for actions. “You hung your coat on the hook and I’m proud of you!” Or, “Thank you for emptying the garbage in your room!”

Children will develop a sense of ownership for any repeated action. This constant communication helps them take initiative in other situations, says Alex, such as at school or on a play date.

When you ask a 5-year-old to make her bed, it may still be lopsided. Don’t criticize. Recognize a job well done. The next time you make your own bed, show her how you do it.

At least at first. There’s a time and place for rewards and allowances, but both experts agree that being responsible isn’t it. Don’t assume a reward system has to be in place for your child to learn responsibility. While a reward chart can be effective for some children, others respond just as well to praise, spending time with you, and feeling the boost in their self confidence. Consider saving rewards for tasks that go above and beyond what you expect to be your child’s normal household responsibilities.

Children thrive on order. Instead of offering rewards to get them to meet responsibilities, set up a morning routine with a positive end result. Your son must brush his teeth, eat breakfast, and get dressed before watching TV. (Notice TV is not being offered as a reward. It’s just the result of finishing the routine.) And he should be able to complete the routine in any order that works for him.

A younger child may not fully realize these tasks are his responsibilities, but allowing him to create a healthy structure will give him the tools to one day develop strategies for getting homework done without you nagging (too much!), suggests Dr. Ruskin.

Learning to take care of his things also helps a child develop a sense of responsibility for his actions. To get your son to clean up after an art project, inform him that he won’t be able to play with his crayons and scissors until the next day if he leaves a messy table. Then you need to follow through and take away his supplies if he shirks his responsibility. The more you enforce the rules, the more likely he is to clean up without being asked, or at least without whining about it too much.

“It is ultimately your child’s choice to not put a toy away,” Alex said. “Parents are afraid to let children suffer, be sad or angry, but if we always solve children’s problems, they will not learn to be responsible as they grow up.”

If your daughter has to pack her bag for school each day and forgets her basketball sneakers, then she won’t get to practice that afternoon. As much as you want to bring her sneakers to her, don’t! Hopefully she’ll be more cognizant of remembering her responsibilities next time.

All of us want our children to be successful in their pursuits, both as children and throughout their lives. Helping children develop a sense of responsibility is an essential component of that success. These steps can help parents teach their children responsibility, giving them the tools to successfully care for the monkeys they will encounter throughout their lives.