Being Responsible

Many adults talk about the need for young people ‘to be more responsible’, possibly without reflecting on what is the true nature of responsibility.

There are two aspects to being responsible, one is the owning of your every feeling, thought, word and action and, second, having the response-ableness to follow through on your responsibilities.  Response-ableness is not generally associated with being responsible, but how can any person who does not possess essential emotional, social and other life skills possibly be responsible in these areas of functioning.  Whereas the nurturing of children is now more commonly accepted as critical to a child’s security, the enablement of children can be missed as being equally important.  Toddlers let us know the latter very definitely when they assert ‘I want to do it myself’.  It is a truism that if parents want a responsible thirteen year old, then they need to start that process with the three-day-old.  A response that toddlers need to hear ringing in their ears is not ‘no’, but ‘just do it.’  Clearly, parents will ensure there are no obvious dangers, but an anxious parent sees dangers where there are no dangers.  The parent who overprotects children deprives them of the necessary opportunities to becoming confident and competent.  Equally, the parents who dominate children with ‘shoulds’, ‘have to’s’, ‘ought to’s’, also undermine children’s confidence and potential competence.  Parents who are anxious or overprotect or live their lives through their children (‘I do everything for the children’) fail to show belief in their children’s power beyond measure to gradually take charge of their own lives.  In doing everything for children, parents prevent them from learning to stand on their own two feet.  Parents who dominate, control, have unrealistic expectations, push and are over-involved in their children’s lives confuse their children with their achievements.  Such confusion leads to a lack of confidence and an addiction to success.  These children can become over-responsible in that they seek to please others, but patently neglect themselves.  The essence of responsibility is to take care of self and own your responses, but children who are dominated see themselves as being owned by others.  True responsibility is not within their remit.

A wise rule of thumb is ‘do not do anything for a child that the child can do for self.’  A wise practice is the regular affirmation of each child’s unique unlimited potential and the ingenious ways each child manifests his or her individuality.  It still surprises me when parents answer the question ‘what is it that draws you to love your baby’ with ‘its helplessness.’  Such a response is not a good start to developing a child’s confidence, competence and responsibility.  Babies many be dependent, but they are not one bit helpless, indeed, they are often far more powerful in voicing their needs than many adults.  Children need to be loved for self and believed in and encouraged to explore the world they live in.  It is crucial that those two responsibilities of parents and teachers be kept separate; any enmeshment creates emotional insecurity and blocks children’s innate adventuresomeness, natural curiosity and eagerness to learn.

The aspect of responsibility with which most adults struggle is owning their own responses.  We are extraordinary in the way we project responsibility for our feelings, words and action onto others:

  •             ‘you made me angry’
  •             ‘you deserved what I said’
  •             ‘you drove me to hit you’

Examples of passing the buck are multiple:

  •             ‘you’re never there for me’
  •             ‘you only think about yourself’
  •             ‘you’re a bully’
  •             ‘you’re a liar and a cheat’
  •             ‘you think you’re better than the rest of us’

When you examine the above responses, what is clear is the absence of the ‘I’.  However, the central letter in the word respons-i-bility is ‘I’ and this demands that the person take ownership of his own responses and any action that such ownership demands.  Take the example above of ‘you made me angry’, responsibility here requires the ‘I’ message: ‘I feel angry.’  Anger is an energy provided for the person to mobilise him on some unmet need or unexpressed value or belief.  Blaming another is looking to the other to take responsibility for your unmet need, but each of us is one hundred per cent responsible for our own needs!  If we had the good fortune to be reared in an environment where we were given daily opportunities to take responsibility for many of our own needs, as young and older adults, we would automatically own and take action on our own needs, beliefs and values.  However, if we had been spoilt or over-protected or dominated, is it any wonder we act in ways that are in keeping with that rearing – ‘passing the buck?’  It is a much harder challenge to learn responsibility as an adult.  Nevertheless, the responsibility lies with the adult – if they are in that place to do so – to ensure that children live in environments where being responsible is central to family, community and school well-being.  Those adults who do not have the psycho-social readiness to create mature environments need to urgently seek help to redress the situation – a critical act of responsibility!

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of Whose Life Are You Living?