How often do we hear a sigh from a parent and then, “I wish my children acted more responsibly!” I’m sure you’ve also heard, “She is so irresponsible. I have to do everything for her.” Or, “At his age, I had to act responsibly; I did not have any choice.” What has happened in an era when children have more privileges, opportunities, and freedoms than ever before, but often show little inclination toward responsible action? Here we explore how we might build resilience while encouraging the development of responsible children. Many of us grew up with too much responsibility and little freedom. Today’s parents are witnessing, often encouraging, children to have little responsibility and too much freedom. Too much freedom means having and doing whatever they desire without earning it and without a sense of ownership or accomplishment.
Definition of responsibility
Responsibility is the ability to make choices and accept the consequences of those choices. It involves recognizing and accepting limits and understanding the relationship between cause and effect. Acts of responsible behavior are appropriately rewarded with increased freedom. In the adult work world, those who demonstrate responsible behavior are often awarded bonuses, promotions, or additional privileges. At minimum, they receive less management supervision; they earn these rights and freedoms.
Children with unearned privilege
Freedom without responsibility can lead to inconsiderate behavior and an attitude of privilege. Then one day, an adult yells out, “You brat!” In contrast, responsibility without freedom can lead to resentment and conflict. Sometimes an oldest child is expected to look after the younger children, be a good example and maintain the good behavior line without receiving deserved acknowledgement and freedom to make some independent choices, such as curfew or allowance-spending.
Consider this formula: Increased Responsible Behavior Leads to Increased Freedom and Decreased Responsible Behavior Leads to Decreased Freedom.
Weakening our children’s resilience
Too often, parents rob their children of their ability to act responsibly. They act more like servants than family leaders. They block their children from the responsibility and consequences of their choices. I heard a teacher describe parents who flew into the school with their child’s forgotten lunch as helicopter parents. Helicopter parents fly to the rescue rather than allowing their darling to feel a hunger pang or learn how to negotiate with a friend for a bite of their sandwich. Other rescues may involve over-involvement with homework, purchasing frivolous items to appease a whine, and doing for their children tasks for which their children have the competence.
Family researcher Jean Illsley Clarke calls over-indulging children ‘the new abuse.’
Here is a list of ways to foster responsibility:
1. Acknowledge when children demonstrate responsible behavior. For example, you can say to your child, “Thank you. You demonstrated responsibility by putting everything back where you found them.” Use methods that are compatible with learning styles. For children with an auditory preference, give them lots of verbal encouragement and recognition. For the visually-oriented, leave notes of appreciation.
2. Allow children to experience making low-risk mistakes without rescuing them. This is called Natural Consequences. For example, if they lose or break something, do not immediately replace it. Offer to help them create a solution to their problem.
3. Arrange for age-appropriate logical consequences. Check that children understand what you are prepared to do and not do. “I will read you a bedtime story, if you are in your pajamas by 8pm.” Always follow through. Be one person your children can count on to keep commitments. You, the parent, have a responsibility to be consistently reliable.
4. Teach children that acting responsibly creates successful results.
Acknowledge responsibility by pointing out when your children:
Make choices based on what is appropriate and acceptable, not for the reason of avoiding punishment. “Thank you for telling me the truth about how my flower vase was broken. It helps me to trust you.”
Resign from doing for your children what they can do for themselves. When we take over for others, we can unintentionally rob them of feeling competent. Children become accustomed to having a servant. But what do we really want? Hopefully, children who act responsibly. Some parents have written a resignation letter from their role as child servants.
It might look like this:
For too long I have accepted more responsibility for your homework than you. I want to apologize for taking over and giving you the message that you are not competent. You are a bright and capable young man. I hope you believe that. To prove that I mean what I am writing, I am resigning from involvement with your homework. I am available if you would like help with it. Any time. Being there for you will never change. But from now on, you are in charge. Maybe you’re thinking, ‘I’m so used to mom nagging me about my homework and study; it will be hard.’ It might be. I’d be glad to help you figure out a plan but that is up to you. If you don’t pass the year, I will be okay with you attending summer school. I trust you to make the best decision for you.
Will children want to lose their servants waiting on them? Not necessarily. They may even feel angry and up the ante to invite you back into the role. However, Kathy Lynn, author of Who’s in Charge Anyway? states, “If your kids don’t sometimes hate you, you’re not doing your job: the tough work of parenting.”
In my family, we discovered that children 10 years old can put away their laundry, prepare their own breakfast, pack their own lunch, and prepare a dinner a week for the family. By 12 years old, they can typically look after their own laundry and handle a clothing and necessity allowance.
As parent education guru Barbara Colorosa wrote, “What children need is support, explanation, encouragement, opportunities to be responsible, and invitations to think for themselves.” If you try out some of these ideas, you will help develop resilient and responsible children.
Patricia is a professional speaker and an award-winning author. Her inspirations, stories, and solutions are developed from solid research and extensive training in the field of humanistic psychology, positive psychology, and resiliency. To book Patricia, an upbeat, energetic presenter who will show you how to strengthen personal and everyday resilience at work or at home, or to purchase her books, visit solutionsforresilience.com.
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