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Newsletter: December 2019

Teaching Kids Responsibility Through Family Dinner

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One of the qualities parents say they most want to instill in their kids is responsibility. However, it seems that more and more families are struggling with how to balance the demands of tough academic loads and extracurricular schedules against the very real need to teach kids to step up and be more responsible. Colleges are adding classes in “adulting” to their course catalogs, and everyone from middle school educators through graduate school deans are sounding the alarm over kids’ lack of basic life skills. But how do you enforce a chore chart when your teenager is putting in late nights mastering AP classes? And if you have to stand over your middle schooler to be sure expected tasks get done, is he really learning responsibility? Where’s the line between expecting kids to step up, and overloading a generation of already stressed-out young people with increasing to-do lists?

It can be overwhelming for both kids and parents to feel as though “teaching the art of adulting” is yet another item to be checked off each day. But the good news is, with just a few tweaks to your already-established family meal routines, you can pack big lessons about responsibility into a short window of time daily. And if you don’t have a consistent family meal routine yet, starting one — even just one day a week — could be the perfect way to kick-start a responsibility practice (while also getting you all the scientifically proven benefits of family dinners). Here are some ideas to help you teach responsibility through family dinners:

  • Give everyone a job. Every member of the family can pitch in to make mealtimes a success! Toddlers can fold napkins and carry them to the table; preschoolers can wash produce, stir ingredients and set out unbreakable dishware; elementary kids can help prepare simple dishes, pour drinks and clear the table; and so on.
  • Put kids in charge of planning. It’s not just the ability to do a job when asked that makes a responsible person — kids also need to build the executive functioning, or planning and organizing, skills that are needed to see something through from start to finish. By the time they’re in mid-elementary school, most kids can be in charge of noticing when a household staple they use frequently (like milk or cereal) is running low, and adding it to the grocery list. As they get older, they can be given a list of items to find at the store and bring to the cart, or asked to choose a meal for the week and make a list of all the ingredients so you’ll have what you need on hand. By the teen years, they can not only plan a meal and prepare a shopping list, but also be in charge of cooking their chosen dinner for the family, which will teach them valuable time management and organization skills.
  • Let the natural consequences play out. One very real reason many parents feel their kids don’t show much responsibility is that parents have the impulse to nag, micromanage and rescue so that tasks get done up to adult standards. Instead, try letting the whole family notice and learn from natural consequences. “Oops, dinner’s ready, but nobody set the table. We aren’t ready to eat yet!” will often get a reluctant or forgetful child moving more quickly than “Dinner’s in 10 minutes and I’ve told you a dozen times already! Put down the video games and set the table!” Similarly, opening the refrigerator door and finding that there’s no milk for the morning cereal will be a good motivator for your 12-year-old to add it to the shopping list next time. If parents are constantly jumping in to head off minor inconveniences like these, it’s harder for kids to feel that their efforts are needed — and if they don’t feel that they have an important contribution to make, they aren’t likely to try very hard.

For more inspiration to help you instill responsibility through family dinner routines, check out these links.

See how the Donner Family from Nebraska uses a “helper rotation” to keep everyone involved

Learn from the Gonzalez Family of Washington State how their growing family divides dinner tasks

Get Dr. Anne Fishel’s Expert Advice on Adding Competence to the Mix with School-Aged Kids

Learn how to make the most of dinner with adolescents on our Food for Thought blog

Family of the Month

This month, we’re highlighting a group of families whose dedication inspires us: Grandparents raising their grandchildren in difficult family circumstances. We’ve worked with these families through our nonprofit community programs, and are pleased to share their stories and wisdom.

Real Family Dinner Projects: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren


This easy recipe for chicken chili was shared with us by a Family and Consumer Sciences teacher who’s an expert in helping kids build responsibility around mealtimes! It’s a great first recipe for a budding family chef.

Kathy Elder’s White Chicken Chili


It’s the perfect time of year for decorating cookies, and putting kids in charge of the task (and maybe making a list of recipients to give them to!) is a great way to build more skills.

Cookie Art


Responsibility isn’t just about getting a job done; it’s also about learning to do good things for others. Teach the “giving” side of responsibility and enjoy the spirit of the season with these conversation starters.