Jul 302007

This time I don’t want to talk about the responsibility that comes with having children. I want to talk about the responsibilities our children have. Or maybe should have.

For the past year or so my son has been really moody. Sometimes aggressive, sometimes depressed a little. We were fighting so much that we asked the preschool to switch from him going only in the afternoon to almost the whole day. (Yeah, that’s right, I put my son in daycare because we (him and me) were fighting so much.) When I approached his teacher, telling about my difficulties and the constant power struggle in our house, she said that she didn’t see any of it in school. And that maybe it had to do with him being around adults all the time. At home he is always the weak one, the little one, and the one who isn’t allowed to decide on his own. So I’ve been thinking about ways to make him feel more independent.

The other thing I have been thinking constantly about is how many of my students seem to be incapable – and unwilling – of doing anything on their own. It often seems to me that their parents still hold their hands at an age where they should be almost grown-up. And I think that this makes the students (and maybe the parents too) unhappier and doesn’t help building self-esteem

So maybe our children need more responsibility. I’m not talking about child labour here. I’m talking about having to stand up for the consequences of their own actions. Since most of my students come from rather privileged families, I have seen children sent to boarding school when they were about to fail a grade. I have seen parents doing homework, I have seen parents making up for everything their children screw up. Lost a coat? You get a new one. Forgot your homework? Your mother’s doing it. Have to go anywhere? Your parents are driving you everywhere you want. Even in the middle of the night. You don’t know what to do after high school? Well, just sit around at home moping until you find out.

They have nice parents, do they? (Of course, not all parents and students are alike. I do have students who have to be quite self-sufficient too.) But I can’t shake the feeling that these young adults have the deep feeling that they are really dependent on their parents. And that they won’t know what to do when on their own.

While responsibility might be a burden, eventually each and every one of us has to take responsibility for himself and his life. Well, there even might come a time where our children will have to be responsible for their children or, gasp, even us, their parents. With responsibility comes a sense of accomplishment and capability too. It’s not all bad though there are a lot of young adults out there who shy away from it. Who never learned it.

Young adults who grew up thinking that it was their parents they were doing their homework for. Interestingly they started failing school the minute they were old enough to realize that their parents don’t have any real power over them. When I had talked to those parents earlier and said, “Well, let him go to school without his homework then.” The parents had answered, “But then he will have bad grades!” Yeah, he will. Maybe that’ll teach him to do his homework.

I’m not talking about not helping. I’m the first one to explain something for the umpteenth time, to say, “Maybe you should try this.” But today my son refused to get dressed and then had a tantrum about his breakfast (“What do you want for breakfast, müsli or bread?”, “Müsli.”, “Are you sure?”, “Yes, Müsli.” – “Here’s your müsli.”, “But I dooon’t WAAANT MÜÜSLIIII!!!). So I told him if he didn’t get dressed he could walk to preschool naked. Then he dressed. And then we left for preschool. No breakfast. For him that is.

But I’m still behind what I thought I would be doing before I had a child. Back then I thought that a four year-old should be able to dress himself, pick up his toys, and help with housework. Very funny. Right now my son’s responsibilities are: dress and undress himself, know when to use the toilet, and unpack his backpack. Sometimes, very rarely I ask him to put his plate on top of the dishwasher after meals. One reason for this is that housework around here mostly happens when he is at preschool, but maybe we should change that.

Children of his age that are visiting Montessori school already learn how to cook a little, they brush their hair, they brush their teeth and they know how to sweep the floor and cut vegetables. They certainly have to pick up their toys.

So I’m thinking about which responsibilities to introduce next. I don’t want to end up with a boy who’s 16 and who comes home, drops his shoes in the middle of the floor, slumps into the next chair and says, “I need something to eat.” And who then expects me to cook something for him. I definitely don’t want him to grow into a man who says that housework is for women. A man who never will move out because he doesn’t want to be without room service and clean laundry.

I’d like to raise my son with the knowledge that actions have consequences and that he will have to face them on his own someday.

So, what are your children responsible for?

  18 Responses to “Children and Responsibility”

  1. This was a totally fascinating read, i wish I had more to add, but I am kidless….

  2. He could sort dirty and clean laundry, learn how to fold it, deliver it to the right room, and put it away.

    My kids both love to use the brush to scrub the toilet.

    Fiona learned to use a vegetable peeler and a small knife when she was four. No cuts yet.

    Also, using window cleaner (or other not-too-harsh cleaners) in a spray bottle.

  3. One way he may feel less powerless is if he participates more in structured (by you) physical actions, and less in merely oral choices. Instead of “Do you want musli…are you sure?” you could try, “Can you pour your musli into your bowl while I get out our spoons? Here’s your milk in a measuring glass–pour it on your cereal.” He can put stamps on your letters (“Can you tell which corner it goes on? Which way is the stamp right side up? Right.”), dust with you “How do you tell when the chair’s not dusty anymore?” count the knives, forks and spoons (“How many do we need? We’re having X to eat–do you think we should skip the knives this evening? Oh, and we’re having soup–will you want to eat yours with a soupspoon or a regular spoon?” and set them out. I’d be inclined not to worry about responsibility–and instead to help him to learn how to do stuff(count, fold, turn on, turn off, cut, glue, use a screwdriver, use a spatula, pour laundry soap in the washer, stir eggs into batter, load, empty). “We need to fold the laundry before we put it away–would you rather fold your socks or your underpants?” Then “thank you–good job. Do you think it will be one load or two for you to take them to your sock drawer?” Predicting is good; he’s learning to estimate. And spatial estimates are good; “Is there room for all your socks? Would they fit better if you put them in the other way?” “Shall we put lemon or orange flavoring in the yogurt today?” (And obviously there doesn’t have to be a right answer here, or for most of these sorts of questions, of course. But he is taking responsibility by making judgments and estimates. And he is participating.) He doesn’t have to do all this stuff all the time, but it’s useful for him to know as many of the basics as possible.
    Just my opinion.

  4. Mine is 16, but i see these parents you describe all around. You should see the lengths to which they will go when they think college is on the line. I wonder how these kids will ever learn to take care of themselves.

    Mine does her own laundry, cooks dinner 3 nights a week (when she’s not in school) sets the table, clears the table, scoops cat poop, feeds the cats at night, empties the dishwasher, and various other duties as assigned.

  5. terrific post. Mine, at almost three, is responsible for bringing her blanket with her to school, for picking up her toys after she is done playing and putting her clothes in the hamper when she gets undressed. all of the above happen frequently but not consistently, however.

  6. I thought of some more:

    sweeping and raking (although I bought the special child-sized implements via Montessori catalog and wouldn’t really recommend them);


    emptying the dishwasher or drainer, putting away the utensils and other unbreakables;

    watering plants.

    All the things that Anne said – not actually being responsible for a task, but learning alongside, taking turns doing things that he can do and watching you do the things that require the precision of an adult.

  7. Ahhh, helicopter parents are now circling your end of the world it seems. A huge problem back home, too.

    As MF is only 2, he doesn’t have a whole lot of responsibilities yet. But he and his brother will have plenty as they get older. Right now, MF helps pick up books and toys after he’s done with them; he delivers most recyclable bottles and newspapers to the recylcling bins for me; and he ‘helps’ me load and unload the washing machine and dryer.

    Of course his ‘help’ can be annoyingly slow and infuriating at times, but I try to be patient…

  8. I absolutely agree with all of this. I think it’s really frightening how little responsibility kids are given these days, and one can see the results in college students, who lately seem to have a horrifically huge sense of entitlement — the world owes them this, the world owes them that…

    Jack attends a Montessori, and we try to have him do as much as possible at home as well.

  9. I hated doing chores as a child but now I am able to create a pleasant living space free of old crusty pieces of bread and unwashed cups.

  10. Interesting post. Yes, it is frustrating, isn’t it? Furious Fours are just Terrible Twos but they can now talk. Ah, how well I remember…

    Still, your son not only has to learn the consequences of his actions, he has to learn to be responsible for his well-being and, maybe even, the well-being of others. I firmly believe in picking the right time for introducing such “lessons”. Right before bedtime is good (i.e., you can get a child to do anything if it means not having to go to sleep) and not in the morning when everyone is late and stressed. I also believe that any child will do something if it is “bigger” than their ability. Examples for a four year old: clean out the dryer filter, wash (flood) the kitchen floor, cutting up the cucumbers for tonight’s dinner, sorting the laundry into lights and dark clothes. At this point, it is not a matter of making him neat or more obedient, but making him feel more important and skilful.

    Please ask him for help and not favours: my mom would constantly say, “Could you do me a favour?” and expect me to sign a blank cheque and say yes, before I even knew what the favour was. I wasn’t actually allowed to say no to the question (I tried once or twice only for her to go into a tirade about how hard her life was at the moment and how selfish I was). The favours were also things she wanted me to do right away, interrupting my momentary game. Boy, did I hate that! So, the general rule of thumb is to tell your child you need their help (do not ask them if they will help you, unless you are willing to generously accept a no), tell them what you would them to do, in what timeframe (now, is not good, unless it is an emergency), and what the reward will be (praise, appreciation, and underlying the importance of their help is acceptable).

  11. My friend is an advanced skills teacher (think that is what it is called) here in the UK and basically she goes round to secondary schools (12 -16 yrs) that are failing to produce good results. One of the major reasons is that the teachers have no ability to discipline becasue of the role SOME of the parents play. The teenagers who forget their homework and are about to get into trouble phone their parents who then DRIVE THE HOMEWORK TO THE SCHOOL rather then let their poor delicate child face detention or whatever the punishment may be. If they do get detention then the parent complains to the school. Consequently they have not been taught responsibility for their actions. The parents are terrified of upsetting their little babies (all 6ft 2 of them) they have no respect for their teachers and even less for their parents. I am a mother of two one is 4 and one is 1. My 1 year old MArtha can systematically destroy the house within a 10 minute period. Oliver my 4 year old can make his bed, put his clothes inthe laudry bin, turn the washer on, and helps tidy martha’s toys away plus his own of course.

    I know for a fact that when he is old enough for pocket money, it will be linked to certain jobs around the house which is how i first earnt my pocket money when i was 12 until i got a saturday job.

  12. First, I’d just like to say how refreshed I am to see that helicopter parenting isn’t just a US phenomenon.

    Second, I’d say that Montessori has done miracles with D. He wants to put on his own shoes and clothes. He wants to cook his own waffle, toast or pancakes. I have bought microwave or toaster ready to facilitate accessibility to cooking. He has been asking to pour his own milk/yogurt drink. He has become mannerly and is treating his little sister with more respect.

    Fours have been hard. Five is looking a little easier. He starts going with Peep to Montessori on Aug. 28th. I’ll keep you posted on other new things to try! Oh, watering plants! and setting the table.

  13. My 4 year old sets the table, mainly just the cutlery but he loves carrying it and laying it out on the placemats. If we’re having side plates or small bowls of things to go with our meal he will carry those out for me as well.

    He also can put his clothes away in his drawers on his own if asked and he puts away his toys too.

    Great entry by the way!

  14. I completely agree with bestowing children with their own responsibilities I really think it’s one of the best ways to learn and also give them confidence too. I’m sure that children who learn to do things for themselves grow to feel more capable and more confident in life.

    If you have a few spare moments and it’s you’re kinda thing you’ve been tagged here http://u-handbag.typepad.com/uhandblog/2007/08/8-im-it.html

    Hope you can play!

    Lisa x

  15. Fascinating–thanks for writing about this. I don’t have kids, but I have friends that do, and I work retail so I see kids in the public all the time. One of my friends does her sons homework so he won’t be kicked off the football team. It’s gross. Parents are supposed to offer guidance and life skills.

    There was a study done recently that I heard about on the radio, about how so many kids today are being told they’re wonderful despite what they do. The whole building self-esteem thing just went out of control. Anyway, we’ve wound up with a whole generation of narcissists who just expect things will be handed to them, then find a rude awakening when they’re not made manager immediately at their first job. Scary. More than anything what bothers me is how few know how to have a conversation anymore. They’re so accustomed to cell phones, Ipods, and video games that keep them in a coccoon.

  16. As parents, we lead by example. I am very grateful that here, our kids’ father cooks, he cleans, he asks that they are responsible for cleaning up after themselves. And they witness him helping out around the house – vacuuming, shopping, doing dishes. It’s a family affair. Everyone has their responsibility in the household.

    And then they accidentally spill 2 gallons of pink lemonade on the freshly washed floor. Or get into some crazy thing where they have to tear tissues into tiny bits and put them under their beds for months at a time. Or they lose their socks in the woods.

    Some things you can’t control, but it’s nice to try. Or think you’re trying. Or pretend to try. Or give up trying all together.

  17. Our children clear the table and pick up their toys. Make their beds. They help fold the laundry.

    its not perfect, we need to remind them often and sometimes squabble about it.

    sorry to hear you and your boy are arguing and I do not thionk it was a bad decision to put him in daycare all day, you want to preserve the relationship after all.

    Four is very young, my littlegirl was very oppositional until this year at age 5, still a test on me, but much better.

    ownership of ones life is a good thing. Never too young I say, great post.

  18. Great post, Susanne. I see this lack of responsibility in the university students I work with all the time. Parents will call my husband to talk about their child’s workload–these “children” are in their 20s for crying out loud.

    I hope to avoid that with Miss M but I worry about my own ability to let go, to not want to be involved in every aspect of her life.

    At 2 1/2 she helps me water the garden and she helps me make dinner each night even if it simply means mashing up mushrooms with the blunt end of a butter knife.

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