For any parent one of perhaps the most difficult tasks we face is that of teaching our children responsibility and this is especially difficult when we are talking about parenting teenagers. Invariably you find yourself faced with the problem of trying to instill habits into your teenagers which will result in appropriate behavior without at the same time stifling the need for them to be able to make individual personal choices.
Being ‘responsible’ for something simply means being the agent for some action which produces an effect which can be either good or bad. Teaching responsibility is accordingly very much a case of getting your child to understand that every action has consequences and that these may affect not only their own lives but the lives of others.
If you can get your child to see the link between her or his actions and their natural consequences then you will be a long way down the road towards teaching responsibility. This method is also a lot better than following the time honored, but normally totally unproductive, route of simply resorting to telling your teenagers that they can or connot do something ‘because you say so’.
Now this is all very well but, in reality, it is often easier said than done. Take, for example, the teenager who is tempted to begin, or has indeed already started, to experiment with drugs. The clear consequences of this are that he is quite likely to graduate from ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ drugs, will become addicted and probably begin lying and stealing, or perhaps worse, to feed his growing habit. School work will start to suffer, as will his state of health, and at some point he will come up against the law and could well end up in jail. However, you try to explain this to a fifteen year old who is convinced that he is totally in control of his own life and is more than capable of ensuring that this will not happen to him.
This is possibly a somewhat extreme example of the difficulties of teaching responsibility and one for which the solution is a bit too complex for this short article. Nevertheless, it is a relatively common problem these days and one which many parents will be familiar with.
For the moment however let us take a simpler, but extremely common problem – that of teaching your teenage son to take responsibility for keeping his room clean.
For a large number of parents the answer to this problem is to withdraw privileges until the room is cleaned. As an example, when your teenage son arrives home from schools, drops his bag on the floor and is about to rush out to join his friends at the mall, you stop him from venturing out until he has tidied up his room. This usually sets off an argument in which the words ‘not fair’ feature prominently as he heads off to his bedroom slamming the door behind him.
The problem in this case is frequently that the boy has not yet made the connection between his actions in simply throwing his things in the corner of his room and the inconvenience which this causes you in having to go into his room and sort through the mess when it comes time to do the laundry. In addition he has yet to make the connection between the fact that you have just spent a small fortune having the wiring in the house sorted out because mice, attracted in part by the food left lying around in his room, had chewed through the electrical cabling.
In simple terms you have inconvenienced your son by curtailing his freedom but this is not fair because at the end of the day he is the one who has to live in the room and he cannot see that it should matter to you what state it is in.
The answer is simply to educate him by helping him to see the connection for himself between the state of cleanliness of his bedroom and the inconvenience that a dirty room causes for you. Once you have achieved this, taking away his privileges and inconveniencing him when he does not keep his room in good order will suddenly seem to be quite fair.
While teaching children to connect their actions with their natural consequences is clearly the key to instilling a sense of responsibility in them, you must remember that the child has got to be in a position to understand the link between his actions and the consequences.
Despite the fact that it is often easy for adults to see the connection, a child may not always have sufficient experience or knowledge to spot the link. For this reason it is important to begin teaching your child responsibility at an early age so that, when difficulties of understanding do appear, the child will come to trust you when you tell him that he does not want the consequences of whatever it is he is contemplating.
One final point to think about is that, like adults, children have a degree of their own free will and, whether we like it or not, the influence that you can exert over your children is limited. Often the best you can do is to lay down reasonable expectation and, whenever necessary, to adopt a firm, but certainly not overly authoritative, stance. At the end of the day you are after all raising a person with the capacity to think for himself and to stand on his own feet and exercise self-responsibility.
Setting a good example and pointing out to your children the path which they should follow is as much as most parents can do. At the end of the day your children will make their own decisions about whether or not they wish to follow the path which you have shown them.