Whiting column: Can personal responsibility be taught?
How do I teach my kids personal responsibility?
Between this column and 40 years of teaching, numerous parents asked me this question. As we’ve discussed before, the first step is role modeling.
Beyond that, you don’t teach responsibility by talking about it; give it to them. Allow them to succeed or fail dealing with the inherent accountability of either result.
Growing up, I had “chores.” When at my grandparents’ farms, my initial daily responsibility was feeding the chickens. This responsibility preceded breakfast. One day I became distracted by the climbing possibilities of the large oak tree by the barn. After a half hour my stomach was growling.
I went inside and asked Grandma, “Breakfast ready yet?” “Are the chickens fed?” “Not yet,” I responded. “Breakfast’s not quite ready.” I ran outside and played with King, my dog. Later I was back inside. “Breakfast ready yet?” “Are the chickens fed?” “Not yet,” I responded. “Breakfast’s not quite ready.” I ran outside.
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I was a slow learner. It took two more times to realize why everyone else had eaten. I went and fed the chickens. No one told me I had done anything wrong; no one lectured me; they let me figure it out, and I got the message.
As a teacher, parents told me they talked with their kids about responsibility, but behavior didn’t change. When we’re young, lectures have less effect than experiences. It’s nothing against our parents, it’s being young.
One lesson is seldom enough. When I turned 10, Dad gave me my first rifle, a single shot .22. He taught me firearm safety and how to shoot, and lectured me on how we didn’t kill for sport, only to protect our animals, ourselves or for food.
I was still a slow learner. One day, out scouting for whatever vicious creatures might be lurking, I saw a sparrow and shot. It was the sparrow’s unlucky day. My skills were not such that I could hit a sparrow from 15 yards, but I did. Grabbing the dead sparrow, I ran to find Dad. He was excited, extolled how great a shot it was and proud I had learned to shoot so well.
His final comment: “Now take the sparrow inside, and Mom will show you how to pluck the feathers, clean it, and she’ll cook it for your lunch.” I learned personal responsibility.
Parents often look to schools to teach their kids responsibility, but our talking about it usually doesn’t get through. Units of study are available and used at all grade levels to teach responsibility but are seldom effective. Give varying types of responsibility to them, whether learning, leadership or behavior, and hold them accountable. More often, schools and teachers tell them when to show up, what to wear, where to sit, when to go to the bathroom, when to talk, what, when and how to learn, and when they’re done. Not a lot of decision-making involved.
To be sure, kids can’t be given free reign, but eliminating any decisions is equally ineffective. Accountability is essential whether because of success or failure. There is a tendency to old only failure accountable, but reward for success is equally important.
This reward can’t be more work. As teachers we tend to say “Wow, you did so well, let me give you some extra work” — not exactly motivational for most kids.
Letting them experience responsibility continues as they mature. The summer after my freshman year, the head hired man’s son and I were moving the irrigation pipe in the west field. A six pack of beer came floating down the river. It must have fallen out of someone’s pickup upstream. The temptation was impossible to ignore. We grabbed the beer and headed for the haystack at the far end of the ranch a mile from the house.
It was a hot July day, and the beer was equally warm, but that didn’t matter. In our youthful bliss, we felt hidden from our parent’s view. Neither of us had experienced beer, so three each made us more clueless than normal. It was after dinnertime and long dark when we made it back to our respective homes. We were so oblivious we didn’t consider the likelihood our parents didn’t know where we were, considering we had missed dinner and bedtime. After making it downstairs to my bedroom without detection I thought I was home free.
My alarm at 5 a.m. was tough but normal. The first indication something was amiss was my father cooking breakfast; my mother and sister nowhere to be seen. My father only cooked when we were hunting, but today he produced scrambled eggs and hash browns cooked with bacon, sausage and the accompanying grease. My “I’m not hungry” was met with, “Eat up, we’re fencing the new pasture today.” The original plan had been to ride the new colts.
All day we dug post holes and stretched fence. Few words were said. Any request for a drink of water generated, “We don’t have time.” At 7 p.m. we were in the pickup headed back for dinner, when Dad spoke. “You’re getting older. We can’t always tell you what to do. You have to make your own decisions, but a man always gets his work done the next day and done well.”
No lectures about drinking; no harangue about his being disappointed, but I was learning responsibility.
Bryan Whiting feels most of our issues are best solved by personal responsibility and an understanding of nonpartisan economics rather than government intervention. Comments and column suggestions to: email@example.com.
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