Many parents seem to think a sense of responsibility automatically develops in their children. They do not see themselves as having any significant role in their children’s lack of responsibility. For example, the parents of an adolescent indicate she cannot be depended on to come home on time, follow through with responsibilities around the house without being nagged, and cannot be trusted to behave herself when away from home. “We didn’t think much about it until she was thirteen or fourteen but it has gotten to be a real problem by now. It was a problem when she was younger, but we figured she would get over it.”
How do you tell these parents the problems they are having now with their daughter reflect chronic parental neglect over many years? When she was two or three, they saw her as too young to instruct her about boundaries and limits. They were more concerned about encouraging her creativity, exploration behavior, and curiosity. Learning to mind, they thought, could wait until later. When she was about four or five, they thought she was too young to help around the house or pick up her toys or keep her room neat, and much too young to make an issue of work and responsibility. When she was a preschooler, it had gotten to be a game for her to be put to bed and then be back up a few times before settling down. As a grade schooler, she waited until they left the room to get back up, turn on the light, and play or read for a while. “We didn’t think much about it. She had usually fallen asleep by the time we were ready to go to bed. We just turned off her light and went to bed ourselves.” When she was a grade schooler, her parents did not make much of an issue of her being on time. It started out being alright for her to be home within fifteen or twenty minutes of the time they set. By the age of eleven, fifteen minutes had expanded to an hour. “If we wanted her to be home at 4:00, we told her to be home about 3:00. It worked out fairly well. Yes, she got into difficulty once in a while in grade school. It didn’t amount to much, and we figured the people at school had handled it. It would have been punishing her twice if we got after her too. We figured she was smart enough to know she was getting into trouble. We did not feel we had to do anything about it.”
Clearly this problem has been present for years. The parents must now begin to compensate for those years of neglect. They expect their child to learn all at once. But you know children learn few things all at once. They learn about responsibility only gradually. If you want your children to be responsible people, you must start when they are young. Responsibility is something you do not teach directly to children; it is a by- product of good parenting and effective child rearing.