Personal responsibility is neither caught nor taught. Rather, it must be learned. Being responsible is the opposite of being entitled. Kids tend to consider responsibility solely in terms of “doing what they are told to do”. I enjoy listening to my grandchildren, the oldest being four- year- old Josiah pictured below. Just yesterday, I asked Josiah, who is often told to be responsible, what the word meant. He said, “It means that I have to be quiet”. (Josiah chats loudly to anyone who will listen all day long) One day last week, when he was being particularly naughty, I asked him the same question to which he replied, “It means I have to obey”.
What does responsible really mean?
To be wholly responsible means far more than merely submitting to authority and doing what’s been asked. Truly responsible people own the condition of their attitudes, thoughts, and feelings. Truly responsible people solve the problems they create. Truly responsible people are accountable for their choices and decisions and understand that success comes by way of effort and hard work.
Irresponsible individuals, on the other hand, see life as merely happening to them. Since they cannot make life happen for themselves, they come to believe things should be done for them. They are victims who feel they have no choice.
Last week I shopped at JCPenney’s. Standing in line behind a clearly distraught woman, I heard the clerk ask the familiar question, “Did you find everything you needed today?” The lady sadly replied, “I shopped for hours and no one helped me find clothes that looked good on me. Everything I tried on just made me look fat. Shopping here was no fun – even the mirrors make me look bad.” I was stunned at the brave clerk’s response and silently applauded as she exclaimed, “Look at me! Have your pity party now and then get over it.” Pointing at the exit, the clerk added, “Leave your wallowing behind when you walk out that door or your pity will eat you up. I mean it. It will ruin your life.” The woman may not have found what she came to the store looking for, but the wise clerk offered her something exceedingly more precious. I left the store, wondering if the shopper actually listened to the exhortation or if the conversation just gave her more food for self-pity.
Kids will not just wake up one day and start acting responsibly. In other words, responsibility is not something that just turns on as a child ages. Rather mature thinking is a result of learned responsibly through trial and error. Over time, kids must learn the value of being accountable and the confidence that comes from solving one’s problems. Kids need to experience the joy that results from being in control of one’s feelings and attitudes. The best teachers, if we allowed them to be, are the consequences of poor choices, as well as the rewards of good choices. Parents do their kids a huge service by considering them capable of creating solutions to their own problems and believing in their ability to figure things out.
When Josiah’s mommy, Erin, was in 3rd grade, she started to come home with tales about how mean her classmates were to her. Wanting to be a supportive and understanding mommy, I would make sure to sit down and listen attentively each time. I would ask questions, commiserate with her, and console her when tears squirted out of her big blue eyes. Over time, the social issues escalated and the tears increased. Concerned that my daughter was being bullied and excluded, I sought advice from a trusted Christian friend (trained in Love & Logic) who responded with “Why do you spend so much time focused on what is going wrong? Expect Erin to tell you first what has gone well in her day and trust her to handle things that go poorly because she can and should.”
Following my friend’s counsel was a turning point in my parenting because it worked! Rather than over identifying with Erin’s sorrows, I started to identify instead with her ability to solve her own problems. I quit listening so intently to the “wrongs” and encouraged Erin to share the “joys” instead. To my surprise, her social life improved dramatically and her struggles diminished.
What a precious gift our children are, and raising them up is the most important role we take on. Raising kids up to become responsible adults is a major part of our task, influencing not only the quality of their lives (and ours!) but that of their future families as well. “If we teach our children that they need something outside themselves to control them, we handicap them for life” (Loving Your Kids on Purpose by Danny Silk). On the other hand, if we raise our children to be responsible for their own lives, they will find joy, and shine brightly, in whatever they set out to do.
- Don’t give attention to your kids when they whine and complain, an easy trap to fall into because it temporarily halts the annoying behavior. But over time, whining will increase as they grow to consider themselves entitled to your attention on demand.
- Refrain from using “excusing words” – words that give a reason for your child’s poor behavior. Often a child’s misbehavior can be tied to a lack of sleep, or to an illness or to being hungry. These are “real” excuses. However, to become responsible means doing right regardless of how one feels. The message behind excusing words is that your kid needs an excuse – that he or she is only capable of doing right when circumstances are right.
- Refrain from using “blaming words”. Blaming others, however warranted it may be, will never grow personal responsibility. Others will treat your kids unfairly at times. What their response is in return is your more important focus.
- Don’t give your kids everything they want. Teach them the value of earning something by working for it. Henry Kissinger stated, “To Americans, usually tragedy is wanting something very badly and not getting it.” Linda Dillow wrote in her book Calm My Anxious Heart that “happiness is getting what we want; contentment is wanting what we get.”
- Love and Logic books by Foster and Fay
- Loving your Kids on Purpose by Danny Silk
- Boundaries with Kids/Teens by Cloud and Townsend
- Calm My Anxious Heart by Linda Dillow