7 Ways to Reward Kids and Promote Responsibility

happykid1-624x854Like lots of women, 30-something Teresa Barile still remembers getting her ears pierced. “The best part was that I got my grandmother’s gold earrings from Italy. I was only 12 but I felt so grown-up and proud to be receiving a part of our family history.”

In every child’s life there are moments like these. For my 7-year-old son, Jason, the big day came last summer when he learned how to build and light a campfire. As his parents, we made sure that he didn’t just learn about matches and fire safety; he also learned about responsibility. The next time we go camping, he’ll be in charge of making the fire, with his dad’s help, of course.

Family educators and youth experts know that rites of passage like Teresa’s and Jason’s are essential for healthy youth development. “Kids need to feel that they are a part of something larger than themselves,” says Ruth Ettenberg Freeman, licensed clinical social worker and founder of Positive Parenting. “Parents can help by identifying every day rites of passage and creating family rituals to celebrate them. This helps tremendously with kids’ self-worth, with peer pressure, and with keeping them from engaging in risky behaviors.”

The trouble is many families today are caught up in what amounts to a game of “rites of passage Monopoly” where all a kid needs to do is “Pass Go,” hit a milestone birthday, and collect a privilege. But instead of basing privileges on age, Freeman recommends that parents communicate their expectations and set up clear behavioral benchmarks for everyone in the family. “Parents should set up a system of things that kids need to achieve that will tell everyone — the parents and the kids — that they’re ready for the privilege,” says Freeman.

Want to create more meaningful family rituals and help your children develop personal responsibility along the way? Here are 7 ideas to get you started:

  • 1. Base rewards on achievement, not on age 1 of 7
    1. Base rewards on achievement, not on age
    In our house we have a rule: No lace-up shoes until you can tie them yourself. This has eliminated the morning melt-downs and really helped motivate our two boys. We let Jason and Liam practice on our shoes. Once they've learned how, they'll get to pick out a pair of new sneakers.

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  • 2. Celebrate everyday accomplishments 2 of 7
    2. Celebrate everyday accomplishments
    When it comes to milestones, parents and kids usually think of the big-ticket items: starting kindergarten, turning 13, getting your driver's license. But, the seemingly insignificant triumphs matter just as much. Did your 6-year-old finally learn to flip a pancake? Celebrate with a special "all-you-eat" breakfast cooked by your young chef.

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  • 3. Set and communicate clear expectations 3 of 7
    3. Set and communicate clear expectations
    For Linda Stephens, mom to two tweens, straight-talk is essential. "My son was 8 when he first brought up the subject of dating," says Linda. "He giggled when I asked what he meant by ‘date.' I told him that when he's able to have a serious conversation about dating that's when I'll know he's mature enough. Until then, no dating."

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  • 4. Link privileges to service 4 of 7
    4. Link privileges to service
    Is your middle schooler pining for the latest gadget? Then make sure she uses her tech skills to contribute to the family's well-being. "We told our daughter, now that you've got an iPhone, you can use it to create our weekly grocery list," says one mom. "She feels great about helping me out and I can make sure she's using technology responsibly."

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  • 5. Share your legacy 5 of 7
    5. Share your legacy
    Passing on a treasured heirloom — Dad's pocket knife, Grandma's secret recipe, Uncle Will's catcher's mitt — is one way to celebrate your child's new status in the family. "I have a box of keepsake clothes that I plan to give my daughter when she's older," says mom Eimear Harrison. Preserving and passing on objects like these not only acknowledge a child's accomplishments, it also shows how much you value your family history.

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  • 6. Beware of “risky behavior” and offer alternatives 6 of 7
    6. Beware of "risky behavior" and offer alternatives
    "Adolescents, especially, feel a lot of pressure to prove themselves to their peers. Dieting among teenage girls, binge drinking, and tobacco use, for example, are all negative rites of passage that parents should be on the look-out for," says Freeman. The Search Institute ( offers free downloadable checklists, like "The 40 Developmental Assets," conversation starters and activity ideas to help parents protect kids from risky behavior and promote positive youth development.

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  • 7. Be open to change 7 of 7
    7. Be open to change
    As children mature and family dynamics shift, your rituals may need to evolve too. A tradition that was perfect when your child was 8 may feel stifling when she's 14. Periodically check in with your family to see what still works and don't be afraid to toss outdated rituals.

    Every child grows up eventually. Take the time now to create unique family rituals to celebrate the big and the little rites of passage along the way.

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Curriculum designer and cultural anthropologist Justine Ickes blogs at and has written for Language Magazine, Litchfield MagazineNew Jersey Monthly and Scholastic’s Parent & Child, among others. She develops training programs for government agencies, international non-profits and institutes of higher learning around the world.


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Article Posted 5 years Ago

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