I have had the following type of discussion with many parents:

P: My kid needs to learn to be more responsible.

Me: What does that mean?

P: Well, he needs to grow up, you know, mature.

Me: What do you mean by mature?

P: He’s got to learn to take more responsibility for himself.

Me: What exactly do you mean?

P: He’s immature, he doesn’t know responsibility.

This conversation usually goes on long enough for the parent to discover that he actually has no idea what he, himself means by “responsibility” or “mature.” The problem is not that the parent is not intelligent, the problem is that the concepts are abstract and were probably not ever really explained to them in the first place. They were used by our parents the same way we are using them today, with very little actual meaning attached.

To demonstrate, I usually ask parents if they want to learn how to “gorflunk.” They ask what that is and I explain that it’s a simple little “exular.” They ask what that is and I say, “it’s gorflunking, you know, an exular.” They look at me like I’m crazy and I ask if they want to do the exular or not. They say they don’t know what I’m talking about. I reply in an irritated voice, “It’s gorflunking, I already told you that, now do you want to learn or are you just being difficult?” I then explain how my words had no more meaning to them than the words, “responsibility” and “mature” have to children.

Maturing is a developmental process that is brought about by changes in the body and the brain that is enhanced by certain experiences. You cannot rush the body or brain development, but you can assist in developing maturity by providing your child the right kinds of experiences that facilitate maturity.

Responsibility for something means having caused or allowed it to occur. If you drop a lit cigarette onto carpeting and the cigarette burns the carpet, you are responsible for burning the carpet. If the owner of the home doesn’t have a fire extinguisher and the whole house burns down, you are responsible for starting the fire and the home owner is responsible for not being able to prevent the fire from spreading.

Taking responsibility for something that has already happened means that you are admitting that you caused the thing to happen or allowed it to happen. If the smoker above takes responsibility for the house burning down, that means he admits he caused it to happen. If the homeowner takes responsibility for the fire, he admits he allowed it to happen. If the father of the smoker takes responsibility for allowing his child to smoke, he admits to facilitating the burning of the house. If the fire chief comes out to the house to investigate and the next door neighbor says he started the fire, he’s taking responsibility for it. Thus, taking responsibility does not necessarily mean that you actually did cause or allow the event, just that you’re saying that you did.

“Being responsible” is a fairly useless term that means very little because it means so much to so many. What it should mean is that a person admits to causing or allowing things that he actually caused or allowed. In that regard, a murderer would be considered very responsible if he admitted to every murder he committed. However, very few people would really describe that murderer as “responsible.”

What most people mean when they say, “being responsible” is that a person does most of the things we expect of him. Therefore, a child who remembers his lunch every day is considered “responsible.” However, he probably takes his lunch every day because he gets hungry and wants a lunch. That’s not being responsible, that’s just self-preservation. That same child might provoke a fight on the playground and be the first one to call out, “not me,” when the teacher asks who’s responsible.

Therefore, I suggest that you dispense of the use of the words, “mature” and “responsible” in talking to your children. Instead, teach them very specifically what they are expected to do and reward them when they do it and consequence them negatively when they do not. If you are educational, fair, and consistent, they will “mature” and become “responsible.”

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