Almost all parents are worriers. Parents worry about their children's physical safety. They are concerned about their emotional and social safety. They worry about the adequacy of their education. Many worry about the effect of the indulgent, convenience-oriented, leisure-emphasizing society that we live in. Parents worry about the amorality and the increasing absence of standards surrounding their children. They worry about the whole range of uncertainties that lie in their children's future.
As parents, there is a parental instinct to protect. And parents try to do so in all sorts of ways. Some install security devices or give their children training in abduction avoidance. Others struggle to afford private education, and some remove children from schools to educate them in the home. Most parents regulate what their children watch and listen to and their screen time and exposure to technology. Some form elaborate trust funds to secure their children's financial future. Some move to rural communities in attempts to give them deeper roots and basic values.
However, regardless of what we do, one of the real and lasting ways to protect children is to teach them to be responsible for themselves.
For the two of us personally, the frightening aspects of parenting became evident about the time that our older children started school. Up until then, we had struggled with the typical highs and lows, the joys and frustration of preschoolers; but our worries had been mostly confined to whether they were healthy and happy. With school came a whole host of other worries.
The stark reality hit: Our babies had begun the irreversible process of moving away from our influence and control and toward times and situations when their destiny would be more and more controlled by others' influence — and by whatever influence they would gain over themselves. We began to realize that we had to do more than "give them a fish"; we had to teach them "how to catch fish." We began to feel the need to teach them responsibility. We began to understand that our instincts to protect our children from responsibility had to be replaced with an approach where we protected them by giving them responsibility.
Children best learn responsibility through a sequence:
Very small children can grasp responsibility as it applies to obedience, for their things and for certain simple kinds of work and chores. As they grow, they can feel responsibility for their actions. More maturity can bring responsibility for choices and character, gifts and potential, and finally responsibility for other people.
The earlier levels of responsibility prepare a child to accept the later levels.
Attempting to teach responsibility out of sequence is hardly ever successful. It is difficult for a child to feel responsible to society if he or she has not previously learned responsibility to their own parents. A child usually cannot understand responsibility for his talents or potential until he has accepted responsibility for his actions and for his possessions. Understanding discipline is much easier for a child who understands obedience.
Of course, one of the most important tools in teaching children responsibility of any kind is example. Children are much less likely to keep their rooms clean if the kitchen is always a disaster and the family room a jumbled mess. If dad always leaves his socks wherever they drop, kids will notice. Once in a while, parents need to step back and look at themselves. If parents are trying to teach their children something the parents never learned, maybe the first step is to change themselves.
Also, remember the connection between respect and responsibility. If you show respect for things, for work, for other people, then you see those things as important, and thus show responsibility for them. Your children, watching, will do likewise.
We have found that parents who focus on responsibility — on setting responsible examples and on consciously and strategically giving children responsibility for what they can understand at certain ages — these are the parents that end up with responsible, self-disciplined kids. Parents have to get rid of the impulse to do everything for their children and instead constantly be thinking about what their growing children are capable of doing for themselves. Yes, it is often harder to get kids to do things than to just do them yourself, but over time it pays off, big time.
Every parent has to design his or her own strategy and plan for giving responsibility, but many learn that a key is to simplify by concentrating and focusing on one form of responsibility each month. Parents can keep one thing in mind and be aware of it consistently. In fact, as parents focus on one simple kind of responsibility, or being responsible for one thing, we've found that there will arise natural opportunities to talk about it and find yourself reinforcing it and implementing it subconsciously.
Simply deciding that giving and teaching responsibility to your children is your goal and your focus is half of the battle. Knowing how much it matters will motivate you to find a way.