Family Resources
Session Eight: Teaching Responsible Behavior

“Session Eight: Teaching Responsible Behavior,” Strengthening the Family: Instructor’s Guide (2006), 79–87

“Session Eight,” Strengthening the Family, 79–87

Session Eight

Teaching Responsible Behavior

“Those who do too much for their children will soon find they can do nothing with their children.”

Elder Neal A. Maxwell

Session Objectives

During this session, help parents:

  • Understand how to teach their children responsible behavior.

  • Know how to tell their children what they expect of them.

  • Understand the concept of teaching children one step at a time.

  • Know how to give choices to help their children behave responsibly.

The Importance of Teaching Properly

Parents have a sacred duty to teach their children to obey the commandments of God and the rules of home and society.1 The Lord has instructed parents to teach their children to be prayerful and obedient, to have faith in Christ, to repent of sins, to be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and to be industrious (see D&C 68:25–32). He rebuked some early Church leaders for not teaching their children properly (see D&C 93:42–44, 47–48). Parents are to “bring up [their] children in light and truth” (D&C 93:40), because “light and truth forsake that evil one” (D&C 93:37).

Some parents fail to teach their children appropriately. Parents tend to rear their children in much the same way they themselves were raised. Some parents are overly permissive and others excessively controlling. Others are so preoccupied with other matters that they neglect their responsibility and opportunity to teach their children. Some parents have distorted ideas about children, seeing them as innately good, without need for instruction and discipline, or innately evil and in need of punishment. A few parents fail to teach their children because they never wanted children in the first place; these children are often at risk for emotional abuse and neglect.

The Lord expects parents to take their teaching responsibilities seriously. The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve have proclaimed: “Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of [their] obligations.”2

Teaching Children

The time to begin teaching children is when they are infants. Children are born with a natural desire to learn. A bond between parents and child “develops gradually over weeks and months” following the child’s birth as they repeatedly interact with one another, learning to adapt to “each other’s unique ways.”3 The relationship between parents and children creates an ideal climate for learning. Children begin to absorb their parents’ ways of doing things by watching and listening, even before language skills are developed. After learning to talk, children ask questions to help them gain information about the world. Parents can use to their advantage the natural curiosity of children, imparting through words and example the information children need for successful living.

Perhaps the most crucial years in a person’s life occur when he or she may be the most carefree and unconcerned about the future—childhood and adolescence. During these formative years, children acquire values, attitudes, and habits that will guide their behavior throughout their lives. Parents have the wonderful opportunity to teach their children proper values and responsible behavior in ways that invite cooperation rather than rebellion.

The following principles will help parents teach their children:

Teach by Example

One of the great challenges and opportunities parents have is to teach their children in such a way that the children will want to follow their parents’ counsel.President David O. McKay described example as “the best and most effective way of teaching.”4

Elder Delbert L. Stapley of the Quorum of the Twelve extolled the value of teaching by example: “A wise man, when asked to list three cardinal points that exemplified the lives of the great teachers of all time and that would be a guide to new teachers, said: ‘First, teach by example. Second, teach by example. Third, teach by example.’”5 President Thomas S. Monson of the First Presidency explained that Jesus “taught forgiveness by forgiving. He taught compassion by being compassionate. He taught devotion by giving of Himself. Jesus taught by example.”6

Bishop H. David Burton, Presiding Bishop of the Church, declared that parents can guide their children when they provide a righteous example: “We must make certain our personal lives are in order. Hypocrisy has never worked, and it will not work today. We are required to lead out in righteousness and encourage our families to follow our examples. Lead out in family home evening. Lead out in scripture study. Provide priesthood blessings. Lead out in personal and family prayer.”7

“Examples become memories that guide our lives,” observed Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve.8 Your children will remember the examples you set for them more than anything else you do or say.

Give Children Responsibilities

Many parents tend to overindulge their children and shield them from the responsibilities they once had to go through—experiences that helped them become capable adults. When parents dole out goods and services to their children while requiring little in return, their children lose the motivation to become self-reliant and responsible. Instead, they tend to become lazy, selfish, and self-indulgent. Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve taught, “Those who do too much fortheir children will soon find they can do nothing with their children.”9

Elder Joe J. Christensen of the Seventy explained that overindulging children weakens them and deprives them of valuable lessons:

“In our day many children grow up with distorted values because we as parents overindulge them. Whether you are well-to-do or, like most of us, of more modest means, we as parents often attempt to provide children with almost everything they want, thus taking away from them the blessing of anticipating, of longing for something they do not have. One of the most important things we can teach our children is to deny themselves. Instant gratification generally makes for weak people. How many truly great individuals do you know who never had to struggle? …

“… Somewhere along the line it is important for the character development of our children to learn that ‘the earth still revolves around the sun’ and not around them. Rather, we should train our children to ask themselves the question, How is the world a better place because they are in it?”10

Elder Christensen cautioned that children must learn to work or they will leave home ill-prepared for the outside world. He stated: “Even in family activities we need to strike a balance between play and work. Some of my most memorable experiences while growing up centered around family activities: learning how to shingle a roof, build a fence, or working in the garden. Rather than being all work and no play, for many of our children it is almost all play and very little work.”11

Parents should teach their children to work alongside them, starting when their children are young and have a natural desire to help. Parents should assign their children routine chores according to their abilities.

Kathleen Slaugh Bahr of Brigham Young University and her colleagues suggest that working side by side strengthens family members, linking them together in enduring relationships:

“When family members work side by side in the right spirit, a foundation of caring and commitment grows out of their shared daily experience. The most ordinary tasks, like fixing meals or doing laundry, hold great potential for connecting us to those we serve and those with whom we serve. …

“… Each rendering of a task is a new invitation for all to enter the family circle. The most ordinary chores can become daily rituals of family love and belonging.”12

Parents should also teach their children to serve others. Elder Derek A. Cuthbert of the Seventy taught, “Wise parents will provide service opportunities in the home for their children from an early age.”13 Where possible, parents should work and serve alongside their children, striving to make activities enjoyable.

As children take on responsibilities, parents need to comfort them when their efforts fall short, and in such cases parents should continue to encourage them to try again. President Thomas S. Monson taught: “Our responsibility is to rise from mediocrity to competence, from failure to achievement. Our task is to become our best selves. One of God’s greatest gifts to us is the joy of trying again, for no failure ever need be final.”14

Clarify Expectations

Sometimes parents assume their children know exactly what is expected of them. The parents feel disappointed when these unexpressed expectations are not met.

Some parents are afraid to ask their children to do chores or make behavior changes, fearing the child will say no or resent or reject them for asking. When parents fail to clarify expectations, a wall of frustration and resentment may develop, creating emotional distance between them and the child. Clearly expressed expectations remove uncertainty and disappointment, thereby strengthening the parent-child relationship.

Discuss with parents these principles for making their expectations known:

  • Clarify in your mind what you want. Make sure your expectations are reasonable. Privately discuss with your spouse and agree beforehand on the expectations, the methods of asking, and the consequences that will be imposed if the child does not comply. If your child is noncompliant or troubled, both of you should be present when making requests, if possible.

  • Choose a good time to make your requests. Discuss your requests when the child is ready emotionally and physically, not when he or she is stressed, angry, or preoccupied with another matter. Family councils or family home evenings are often ideal.

  • Be positive and specific. Instead of speaking in a negative or a general way (“This room is messy. Please pick it up!”), be positive and specific: “Crystal, when you do the dishes, I’d like you to rinse off each dish before you put it in the dishwasher because the dishes will be cleaner and the dishwasher will last longer.”

  • Show what you mean. Without doing the job for the child, demonstrate what you expect. For example, you could help the child properly rinse off the dishes, place them in the dishwasher, and wipe off the counter.

  • Give lots of positive feedback. When the job is done, you might say: “Very good. That’s exactly how it should be done.” Tell the child how the behavior benefits you and others: “I feel good when I see the dishes done properly. Our home is a more peaceful place when it is neat and tidy.”

Teach Responsible Behavior One Step at a Time

In directing the spiritual development of His children, the Lord prescribed the teaching of basic doctrine—the milk—to prepare them for greater light and knowledge—the meat (see D&C 19:22). In a similar way, children need to be taught to perform simple actions that are stepping stones to the behavior expected of them as adults. Children may need progressive steps to learn such things as respecting others, using good manners, cleaning a room, or doing yard work.

Behavior can be broken into simple, achievable tasks, according to the age and capabilities of the child. For example, a child can be taught to pick up toys before learning how to clean an entire room. With patience and ingenuity, parents can help their children become cooperative, helpful, and responsible individuals, preventing many problems as children mature.


Camille, an energetic four-year-old, enjoyed shopping with her mother. Invariably, she pulled items from shelves, demanded to touch and take, and threw tantrums when Mother restricted her. Mother, who wanted Camille to behave responsibly, scolded and threatened her but had little success in changing the behavior.

After talking with a more experienced friend, Mother tried a new approach involving multiple teaching steps. The first step was to share the problem in a kind and loving way: “Camille, I want to take you shopping with me, but I get upset when you take items from the shelf. And then you start to scream as I put them back.” Next, she made her expectations clear: “You may come shopping with me when you’re helpful. If you take things or make a fuss, I will have to take you home, and you will not come with me next time. You must not take anything unless I ask you to pick it up for me. I want to make sure you understand this, so tell me what you’ve heard me say.” When Camille accurately restated the expectations, Mother then said: “Tell me what will happen if you take things or make a fuss.” When the child understood the expectations and consequences for not complying and agreed to them, she was allowed to go shopping again.

In the next phase of teaching, Mother took Camille for brief visits to the store. Purchases were limited to one or two items. Recognizing Camille’s desire to be helpful and wanting to channel that desire in a positive way, Mother allowed Camille to help choose a grocery item and to hold it. Appropriate behavior was recognized with verbal compliments. After Camille learned appropriate behavior during short visits, she was invited for longer outings. Mother found useful roles for her, such as choosing between two acceptable kinds of cereal, selecting the nicest-looking apple, or holding Mother’s purse while she placed an item in the cart. Mother gave her lots of positive feedback when she was helpful.

On one occasion, Camille threw another tantrum. Mother took her home as quickly as possible. Without anger or vindictiveness, she said: “I’m sorry you chose to misbehave in the store today. Next time I go shopping, you will stay home with a babysitter. If you decide you can follow the rules when we go shopping, we will try it again, okay?” Within a few weeks, Camille was consistently behaving appropriately in public.

Give Choices

Children, much like adults, do not like to be ordered around. Ordering a child to “pick up the room right now” usually provokes resistance, such as “I’ll do it later.” Children cooperate more readily when they can choose between two acceptable alternatives: “I would like you to pick up your clothes before you go out to play this afternoon. Would you like to pick them up now before the bus comes, or as soon as you come home from school?” The options are limited, but children can make a choice, which helps them take responsibility.

When parents allow their children to choose, the parents should ensure that the choices they offer are acceptable to them as parents. For example, if a parent says to a teenager, “You can mow the lawn now, or you can forget about using the car tomorrow night,” the child may choose to forgo the car and go with friends instead. The child gets what he wants, and the lawn remains unmowed—an unacceptable outcome to the parent. It is better to say, “You can mow the lawn today, or you can clean the garage for me so I’ll have time to mow the lawn.” In this case, both options are acceptable to the parent, and the child has a choice.

The choices should not involve punishment: “You can mow the lawn now, or you are grounded for a month.” This statement offers no real choice (“You must do as I say, or I’ll punish you”) and will provoke feelings of resentment.

Listed below are some possible choices for differing situations.

Listed below are some possible choices for differing situations.

  • An 11-year-old starts staying up later at night, has difficulty getting up in the morning, and wants his mother to drive him to school. The parent could say, “You can either get up in time to catch the bus, or you can walk to school.” (This choice should be given only if walking to school is feasible and safe.)

  • An eight-year-old delays doing the dishes. The parent could say, “You can do the dishes now, or you can do them tonight while the family watches TV.”

  • A teenager plays music too loud. The parent could say, “You can listen to your CD player in your room with the door closed, or you use your headset. I can’t carry on a conversation because your music is so loud.”

Children are not always eager to embrace new changes that require them to behave responsibly. Be prepared to hear phrases such as “That’s not fair,” “Why do I have to do this?” “Other parents don’t make their kids do that,” or “You don’t care about my feelings or you wouldn’t make me do this.” Parents should not be manipulated by such comments. They need to be consistent in the matter of choices. Consider the example below.


Marty sat down in front of the computer, a nightly routine that had recently started to take precedence over his assigned chores. In a family council meeting a few months earlier, family members had agreed that chores should be done first, but once again he disregarded the rule. His father gave him a choice:


Marty, you have my permission to use the computer tonight when your chores are done, or if you want to do your chores tomorrow, you can use the computer tomorrow night when the work is done.


I’ll do the chores after I’m done with the computer. I don’t have time now.


That may be so, son. But you may use the computer after the chores are done.


I’ve got to get online now. One of my friends is expecting to hear from me.


I’m sure that’s true. This is all the more reason to remember to get your chores done as soon as you get home from school. I don’t enjoy seeing you frustrated or upset. But the work needs to be done. You’ll recall we discussed this rule in family council, and you agreed to abide by it. You’re welcome to use the computer as soon as the work is finished.


That’s not fair. I told you I’d do the chores later. I’ve got other things I need to do right now.


That may be so, but you can use the computer after the work is done.

A parent may need to repeat the choices several times and should do so without becoming angry. The child may soon tire of hearing the message and comply with the request if he or she knows the parent means it.

When giving choices, parents should not become defensive or argue. If the child wants to debate the matter, the parents can acknowledge his or her comments with a brief statement such as “That may be true” and then restate the choices. The whole process goes more smoothly when rules are agreed on in advance.

When a child refuses to comply when given choices, the parent should impose a consequence (as described in session 9) that logically relates to the misbehavior. Properly implemented, consequences make sense and help children learn responsible behavior. If the consequence is disproportionate or unrelated to the offense, it may seem unreasonable, arbitrary, and excessive, provoking the child to feel angry, resentful, and rebellious.

Engage in Family Activities

The teaching efforts of parents will be enhanced as they engage in activities with their children. Children who work and play alongside their parents are more likely to incorporate the teachings and example of their parents in their own lives. Parents should plan activities that are meaningful and enjoyable for everyone. Work and play can both be satisfying when parents foster good relationships with their children.

The Value of Teaching Responsible Behavior

President James E. Faust of the First Presidency emphasized the importance of teaching children responsible behavior: “If parents do not discipline their children and teach them to obey, society may discipline them in a way neither the parents nor the children will like. … Without discipline and obedience in the home, the unity of the family collapses.”15 Greater peace and happiness come to families as parents lovingly teach children to obey the commandments of God and the rules of home and society.


  1. See “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102.

  2. “The Family: A Proclamation,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102.

  3. Martha Farrell Erickson and Karen Kurz-Riemer, Infants, Toddlers, and Families: A Framework for Support and Intervention (New York: The Guilford Press, 1999), 55.

  4. In Conference Report, Apr. 1959, 75.

  5. In Conference Report, Apr. 1969, 44; or Improvement Era, June 1969, 69.

  6. In Conference Report, Oct. 1985, 43; or Ensign, Nov. 1985, 33.

  7. In Conference Report, Apr. 2000, 51; or Ensign, May 2000, 40.

  8. In Conference Report, Oct. 1993, 9; or Ensign, Nov. 1993, 9.

  9. In Conference Report, Apr. 1975, 150; or Ensign, May 1975, 101.

  10. In Conference Report, Apr. 1999, 9; or Ensign, May 1999, 9–10.

  11. In Conference Report, Apr. 1999, 9.

  12. Kathleen Slaugh Bahr and others, “The Meaning and Blessings of Family Work,” in Strengthening Our Families: An In-Depth Look at the Proclamation on the Family, ed. David C. Dollahite (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 2000), 178.

  13. In Conference Report, Apr. 1990, 12; or Ensign, May 1990, 12.

  14. In Conference Report, Apr. 1987, 83; or Ensign, May 1987, 68.

  15. In Conference Report, Apr. 1983, 58; or Ensign, May 1983, 41.