Children have the right to be children and not be loaded with age-inappropriate responsibilities. One mother was taken aback when her daughter exclaimed with some exasperation ‘Mum, I’m only four.’ This response alerted Mum to the fact that her expectations were unrealistic and needed to be tailored to the child’s age-level. If children have the right to be children, so, too, teenagers have the right to be teenagers, but a teenager’s definition of their right may differ markedly from that of parents, teachers and other adults. Belonging to a group is an important part of being a teenager and the ‘right to party’ is an aspect of this need to belong and be accepted by his or her peer group. When such partying results in drunkenness, destructiveness and riotous behaviour, then ‘rights’ become ‘might’ and, of course, cannot be tolerated. One of the challenges that teenagers face and struggle with is that parents are legally and morally responsible to their well-being up to age eighteen years. After that, teenagers are one hundred per cent responsible for themselves; (of course age is no guarantee that they are psycho-socially ready to take on such responsibility!). Parents who are wise and mature start that responsibility-giving process at the earliest stage by creating opportunities for age-relevant responsibilities and maintaining boundaries between the world of the child, of the adolescent and of the adult. When this process is maintained, teenagers ‘right to party’ is accommodated in mature ways by both the parents and the young person. However, when such effective parenting has not been present, then teenage rebelliousness is likely to emerge and literally ‘all hell can break loose.’ I have worked with families where children and adolescents are grossly verbally abusive of parents, are destructive or property and threaten, rob, steal and lie to get their own way. In such a situation, it is the parents who urgently need help and support to create boundaries around their own responsibilities as parents and maintain those boundaries in the face of what can be an onslaught of threats from their teenage offspring.
There is a wise rule of thumb that needs to operate with teenagers and that is ‘freedom and responsibility go hand in hand’; the more responsible behaviour shown, the more freedom is given. However, if this is true for teenagers, it needs to be also true for adults.
A new book written by a Montessori teacher, life skills lecturer and mother of five children and grandmother of eight children addresses ably the issue of responsibility and freedom, as well as many other pertinent responsibilities. The book is called The Conscious Parent: becoming a Reflective and Creative Parent and the author is Clare Healy Walls, a native of Cork. The book’s philosophy is very much influenced by Marie Montessori’s ideas and educative approach, as well as Clare’s own life experiences. Clare defines responsibility as ‘the ability to respond.’ She says that if a person is responsible for a situation then he or she should provide a response suitable for that situation. She believes that parents need to ‘fully understand what being responsible means before they are able to understand their responsibility to children.’ The distinction she makes of ‘being responsible to’ rather than ‘being responsible for’ children is important because many parents feel that society makes them ‘responsible for’ their children. However, Clare pulls no punches when she declares: ‘We are not directly responsible – the child is responsible. But we are responsible to help children be responsible for themselves.’
In order for children to become responsible, Clare rightly points out that children require freedom, which ‘allows children to learn to respond to situations in a responsible manner.’ A child requires freedom to be able to take responsibility. Clare asserts that ‘a free person will by nature be self-responsible.’ Nowadays, there is a confusion between providing children with ‘licence’ to do what they want and freedom. The difference between these two is when children are given ‘licence’ they are not required to take responsibility for their choices; whereas when children are given ‘freedom’ taking responsibility is integral to their actions. Clare points out that ‘if a parent or other adult interferes by removing that freedom or interferes by imposing limits that allow no flexibility, then the child loses interest in responding with a solution. They give up being responsible. They hand over control for their lives to others.’ She reminds parents not to forget that children enter life full of desires and excitement to manage their own lives. The echo of this innate desire is the toddler’s assertion: ‘I want to do it myself.’
Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist and Author.