Parenting Teenagers And The Dilemmas of Instilling A Sense Of Responsibility

By: Donald Saunders

For any parent one of the most difficult tasks we face is that of teaching our children responsibility and this is particularly problematic when we are talking about parenting teenagers. Invariably you find that you are faced with the problem of trying to instill habits into your teenagers which will lead to appropriate behavior while at the same time not stifling the need for them to be able to make individual personal choices.

Taking 'responsibility' for something simply means being the agent for some action which produces an effect that can be either good or bad. Teaching responsibility is therefore very much a matter of getting your child to understand that their actions have consequences and that these consequences may affect not only their own lives but the lives of other individuals.

If you can teach your child to see the link between her or his actions and their natural consequences then you will go a long way towards teaching responsibility. This approach is also far better than following the time honored, but usually totally unproductive, route of just resorting to telling your teenagers that they can or cannot do something 'because I say so'.

This is all well and good but, in reality, it is usually easier said than done. Take, for example, the teenager who is tempted to start, or has indeed started, experimenting with drugs. The undoubted consequences of this are that he is likely to graduate from 'soft' to 'hard' drugs, will become addicted and most likely start lying and stealing, or worse, to feed his habit. School work will start to suffer, as will his state of health, and finally he will fall foul of the law and probably end up in jail. But, you try explaining this to a sixteen year old who knows that he is totally in control of his own life and more than able to ensure that this will not happen to him.

Now This is possibly an extreme example of the difficulties of teaching responsibility and one for which the solution is a little too complex for this short article. Nevertheless, it is a common problem for parents these days and one which many parents will recognize.

At this stage however let us consider simpler, but very common problem - that of teaching your teenage boy to take responsibility for keeping his room clean and tidy.

For many parents the answer to this problem is to withdraw privileges until the room is tidied up. For example, when your teenage son arrives home from schools, dumps his bag and is about to rush off to join his friends at the mall, you step in and stop him from going out until he has tidied his room. This normally sets off an argument in which words like 'not fair' feature prominently as he heads off to his bedroom slamming the door behind him.

The difficulty here is usually that the boy has yet to make the connection between his actions in simply dumping his bag in the corner of his room and the inconvenience which this causes you in having to go into his room and sort out the mess when it comes time to do the laundry. Similarly he has yet to make the connection between the fact that you have just spent a a considerable sum of money having the wiring in the house sorted out because mice, attracted in part by the food left lying around in his room, had chewed their way through the cabling.

In short you have inconvenienced him by restricting 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 in the slightest to you what state it is in.

The secret is simply to educate him by helping him to see the connection for himself between the state of his bedroom and the inconvenience that a messy room causes you. Once you have done this, withdrawing his privileges and inconveniencing him when he fails to keep his room tidy will suddenly be seen as quite fair.

While getting children to connect their actions with their natural consequences is undoubtedly the key to instilling a sense of responsibility in them, you must remember that the child has to be in a position to understand the link between his actions and the consequences.

Despite the fact that it is frequently all too easy for adults to see the connection, a child may not always have enough knowledge or experience to spot the link. It is important therefore to start teaching your child responsibility from an early age so that, when difficulties of understanding do arise, the child will come to trust you when you tell him that he does not wish the consequences of whatever it is he is about to do.

One final point to think about is that, like adults, children have some degree of their own free will and, whether we like it or not, the influence that you can exert upon your children is limited. Often the best that you can do is to lay down reasonable expectation and, whenever needed, to take a firm, but not too authoritative, position. At the end of the day you are after all rearing 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 to follow is as much as any parent can do. In the end your children will make their own decisions about whether or not they intend to follow the path which you have shown them.

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