Fostering Character Development in Teens Responsibility (cont.)

Fostering Character Development in Teens: Responsibility (cont.)

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

Teach it.  Being a Responsible person requires a number of specific skills.  Your kid will need help developing them.

Self control.  Responsibility requires the ability to resist impulses and delay gratification in the service of longer term goals.  Your kid will need practice dealing with frustration and remaining calm and focused under stress.  Make your kid wait.  Require them to share.  Insist that they use manners (because manners are almost always about waiting for someone else to go first).  And let them know you expect them be polite about it.

Keep their word.  Your word is your bond.  Your kid should know that giving their word is a sacred pact.  It is a dedication of their integrity and personal worth to the fulfillment of that commitment.  Make sure they know it.  Make sure they give it.  Make sure they live it.  Only extraordinary circumstances justify going back on your word.  Make sure they DON’T give it unless they mean it.

Work hard.  A Job worth doing is worth doing well.  Responsibility contains an expectation that you will do your best and work your hardest to fulfill a commitment.  While parents and kids often dispute what constitutes hard work, there are some commonly agreed upon signs:  exertion, dedication to the task, personal investment in the quality of the product, going the extra mile.  These should be criteria you require your kid to exhibit when working at a task.

Follow through.  Once a commitment is made Responsible people continue until the task is completed and the work is done.  Your kid will need lots of experience being required to finish what they start.  It should become so ingrained that it isn’t even questioned.

Accountability.  Responsibility means you are also answer to others (and, ultimately to yourself) for the outcomes.  You don’t get to take the credit if it succeeds but blame others if it fails or goes badly.  Responsibility means accepting the consequences.  Hold your kid accountable for their actions.  They will make choices.  If their choices involved risk, make sure your kid suffers the consequences (just as surely as they will reap any rewards). It is important for them to recognize how their decisions and actions have led to particular outcomes.  Make sure they pay the price for screw ups and poor choices (and then commend them for accepting these consequences as a sign of Responsibility).

Admit fault.  Being Responsible means you have a role in whether something goes well or goes badly.   Responsible people are always partly to blame.  This is not the manipulative, guilt based form of self-blame but the recognition of the influence you have in effecting outcomes.  Responsible people do not shift blame for bad outcomes onto others.  To correct problems or to improve outcomes next time requires the acknowledgment of mistakes and failures.  Require your kid to identify the role they played in the success of a venture or situation.  They need practice admitting fault (without automatically feeling like a bad person) as a way to improve in the future.

Apologizing.  And so, of course, Responsible people recognize their role in mistakes or screw ups that affect others.  And apologize when warranted.  You will need to make sure your kid is practiced in apologizing appropriately and gracefully for mistakes or misunderstandings.

Encourage it.  For your kid to learn to be responsible they must have the opportunity to be responsible, with all that entails.  Let them choose for themselves.  Give them the opportunity to do it their way (while making sure it won’t end in catastrophe).  Nudge them to take on Responsibilities.  Require them to be Responsible for things around the house.

Anticipate it.  Kids need to know that Responsibility is important to a happy, productive life.  Talk to them about your expectations that they be a Responsible adult.  Help them see how Responsibility in adulthood leads to specific outcomes: job success, relationship success, personal growth and satisfaction.  “In the business world you will be . . .”  “When you are married . . .”  “When you can look at yourself and know that you are a Responsible person . . .”  “Doing Responsible things like this when you are an adult will lead to . . .”  Help them envision the Responsible adult you know they will become.

Guilt it.  Guilt rightfully arises from the contrast between what your kid has done versus what they should have done as a measure against an important value or moral.  It is an important signal to a kid that this is more than just a mistake; it is a violation of principles or morals.  “I am really disappointed you behaved so irresponsibly.”  “I thought you were ready for this responsibility.  I guess I was wrong.”  “It is really unacceptable for you to ignore your Responsibilities.”  “I expect more of you.”  “You know better than this.”  Use it sparingly but use it when there is a violation of personal values (yours and theirs).

Repeat it.  Over and over again.  “Did you or did you not give your word?”  “Do I have your word?”  “You gave me your word.”  “Give me your word.”

Blaming and excuse making.  The opposite of Responsibility is blaming others and making excuses for what went wrong.  If your kid responds to mistakes and screw ups with these, it is time to give some attention to developing greater Responsibility for their actions (and their life).  Make sure your kid always identifies their role in the outcome of a situation in which they were involved; both good and bad.  Require them to analyze how they contributed to (or didn’t do something to impede or stop) problems that arose.

Shame and self-blame.  The dark side of Responsibility is shame and self-blame.  It is possible to be too Responsible.  Guilt as a response to specific situation is appropriate and helpful.  It is an emotional signal that you violated your own value system in a specific situation.  “I screwed up.  I fell short of my own expectations.”  Shame is the characterization of the self as inadequate and bad.  There are some kids who are so conscientious about doing what’s right and being a good person that any transgression becomes an indictment of the self.  They blame themselves for everything.  Be sure to keep an eye out for signs of this in your kid.  Help them make some room for normal human failings.  Make sure they don’t lose perspective.

And while you are at it, make sure you don’t inadvertently shame and blame your kid when they mess up.  Focus on building up Responsibility not on pointing out their inadequacies and failures.


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