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The Buck Stops Here

The Buck Stops Here

Teaching our adolescents responsibility.


"Ask not what this family can do for you; rather ask what you can do for this family."

When I read that note in a magazine article, I knew that the author must have teenagers! And I knew she must be struggling with the issue of teaching them responsibility. (And I knew that her children probably didn't take the note very seriously even though they might put it up on their own fridge someday).

Messy rooms, dirty laundry, sudden disappearances at chore time…it's the familiar world of adolescence. When all one's energies are needed for choosing an outfit, looking in the mirror, choosing another outfit, looking in the mirror, going shopping, looking in the mirror…who has time to clean their room? How can you argue with "I'm too tired after doing homework all night" or "I'd love to help but I have to study for a test tomorrow (of course that's what I'm doing on the phone - studying!)"?

Yet it's up to us to teach our adolescents responsibility. Not just because it will make our lives more pleasant and our household run smoothly (which is no small thing), but because they need to learn it. And the truth is the more real steps they take towards adulthood, the more the pain of adolescence is diminished. But don't tell your teenagers -- they'll never believe you.

Much of the pain of adolescence is the pain of transition, of being in limbo.

Much of the pain of adolescence is the pain of transition, of being in limbo. They're not children and they're not adults. They're not sure who they are or where they fit in. As they begin to resolve that question, as they slowly fit the pieces of themselves into the larger puzzle, they acquire greater calm and self-esteem. The temptation is to hold them back, to let them play and encourage them to hold on to their childhood. We're doing them a disservice.

Becoming an adult requires strength and courage. Our teenagers are anxious and nervous. They're afraid of change. They're not sure they can make it. We have to give them the emotional tools and the practical skills that allow them to gain that confidence. Developing life skills can foster the strength and determination to grow and mature.

One area where we would like to train our teens to be responsible (and where we would like to stop struggling with them) is financial. Sometimes it seems like there is a constant tape playing, "Can I have this? Can you buy me that?"

As soon as you can, put your child on a budget. Explain what you'll pay for and what you won't. Suggest ways of earning money. Educate them about conservation -- the costs of electricity and the size of your phone bill!

As a practical tip, phone cards are a useful way of limiting long-distance phone calls ("But she's my best friend from camp!") or calls from the school pay phone.

After explaining to your children what you can afford, you may want to offer incentives for staying within the budget. Your children will be less cavalier with your money when they are forced to manage with a fixed amount or spend what they have earned.

That said, be flexible. Sometimes there's something they want (soooo badly). Do a little research. Does everyone else really have it? Have they been responsible? Maybe it's worth it to split the cost. We want to show and teach our children compassion also.

Boys can get very excited when they see those Bar Mitzvah checks. Not only does it distract from the meaning of the occasion, but the responsible thing to do at that point is put it aside for the future (which seems very far away to a 13 year old!). Although their eyes are popping out of their sockets, they really have no comprehension of what that amount of money means. Perhaps you could decide together on a small amount for your son to use now while teaching the value of saving.

In fact, all responsibility should be taught in small increments. And it should start before your children are teens. But if you waited, don't despair; it's never too late.

Everyone could take a turn making lunches. Or cleaning the table. Or doing the dishes. Children could be in charge of putting away their shoes. And turning off the lights when they leave a room. And replacing the roll of toilet paper…

And each small act should be accompanied by -- not an allowance - just lots of praise.

Our daughters can learn responsibility through acts of kindness around the house -- babysitting, cooking, bathing younger siblings. They are not surrogate mothers and there must be limits to our expectations, but they can certainly be our very capable assistants.

Our sons can also help around the house. They can get involved with volunteer work. Maybe their whole class can get involved with a project helping the needy. They can work as camp counselors in the summer or get a part-time job. They can also baby sit. You're limited only by your imagination and determination. Let's raise our sons to be mensches.

With all their posturing and all our demands, our teenagers are still children. They're not ready to assume the full mantle of adulthood. They live in our homes and they must follow our rules. We are teaching them responsibility but not assuming they are fully responsible. We are teaching them step by step, easing the difficult path of adolescence. We are communicating what it means to be part of a family, part of a community, part of society. Being an adult means caring for people outside yourself. Only when our teenagers internalize this lesson, only when this idea is reflected in their thoughts and actions, will they be truly grown up.

In a study done at Temple University researchers discovered a much higher level of anxiety, depression, behavior problems and alcohol abuse in the children of overindulgent parents than in children from homes in which parents set consistent boundaries and responsibilities. Our children need parameters for their actions and they need accountability.

Don't be alarmed if they chafe at it. Even the Israelites in the desert frequently tried to avoid responsibility. What is "We remember the fish in Egypt?" but a plea for a return to a childlike time without independence and without the responsibility of a relationship with God? Just as the privilege of closeness to the Almighty bears a price of responsibility, so too does the privilege of emerging adulthood.

February 19, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Michali, February 27, 2005 12:00 AM

good article eema!!!i love you!!

(4) Sorah Klein, February 24, 2005 12:00 AM


i know when i see the author posted that i'll love the article. practical and down to earth, as usual. thanks again!

(3) Anonymous, February 22, 2005 12:00 AM

great points. Can you collect your articles and putout a book?

(2) R. Gene Payne, February 22, 2005 12:00 AM

The article is absolutely fabulous. My grandchildren could benefit
tremendously from this. I will try. Thank you.

(1) Emmes, February 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Teach Kids Responsibility Across Gender Lines

Hi there, I appreciate your article about teaching teenagers responsibility. Today, shockingly, schools are looking at whether or not they should give kids grades, whether they should praise students who do exceptional work, and whether or not to fail kids who don't apply themselves (to maintain a politically correct attitude). It becomes vital that parents take a firm grip of teaching their kids personal responsibility. It's only fair if we wish to send functional young people into the real world. My one comment to the article is that I see girls are recommended to help around the house and boys only briefly so while their involvement in volunteerism is emphasized. I feel that it is crucial to teach boys, for example, how to cook, clean and take care of younger siblings. There is nothing sadder than a 17 year-old young man who doesn't even know how to do his laundry, cook something healthy while away at school, or sew a button onto his shirt. Girls should also be taught non-stereotypical skills such as how to change a tire, mow the lawn, and to fix a rickety piece of furniture among others. It is a shame to leave her unable to do basic things we often associate with men, and require her to be dependent upon the kindness of others.

In general, the teaching of responsibility to young people is in their best long-term interest as they enter the adult world which can be brutally unforgiving. Giving them the tools and skills they need to be independent and wise are essential. Let's just be sure not to divide these skills and tools too sharply across typical gender lines.

Thanks for a great article!

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