Building Responsibility

He can’t be expected to put his toys away, he’s only three.” He’s nine years old, for Pete’s sake, he should know how to put clothes in his dresser drawers!” She is 14 years old, there is no reason for her to be out past 10:00.” You can get all the tattoos you want, after you turn 18.”

What makes us say things like that? We have expectations about what people should and should not be able to do at various ages. We expect that a 4 year-old can walk and that a 10 year-old can read. We expect that a 12 year-old should be able to clean his room and that a 17 year-old should be able to flush the toilet when he is finished. We would probably all agree on those expectations. However, we get ourselves into trouble when we let age be the deciding factor on issues that are not age dependant.

For example, there is no age limit set for when a child’s bedtime should be moved from 8:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. There is also no agreed-upon age for children to be given their own money to handle. There is also no universal age at which children should be allowed to go on dates. However, there is such a temptation for parents to assign ages to these milestones, seeking perhaps to put the issue off for a while, and then raise the age later if the child still doesn’t seem ready to do whatever it is. Doing that will get you into a world of trouble. The child will remember what you told him. If you told him he could drive at 16 and you don’t let him because of his grades, he’s going to call you a liar and he’s going to be right. You’re going to respond that you meant to let him drive at 16 but he’s not proving himself responsible enough to handle school and you are certainly not going to let him add driving to his list of responsibilities as long as his grades are so terrible. He’s going to respond that what you meant and what you said are two different things and this exchange will go on indefinitely with no winner. Either he will give in and consider you a dishonest cheater or you will give in and go against your principles. Either way, you both lose.

Instead, we advocate not giving children an age at which they can do something, but rather, a set of requirements they must complete. For example, to drive the car, reaching the age of 16 might be one of the necessary requirements, but another might be that they have to call your insurance agent, find out how much the increase in insurance will be to add them as a driver, then they must save that amount of money and give it to you. You will also want to mention that they must pass their drivers’ test, maintain a C average, and that they must agree to never drive while under the influence of substances or transport certain individuals that you do not want in your car or go to locations they don’t have your permission to visit. That puts the responsibility on them to do something to earn the privilege other than merely breathing while 5844 days elapse.

Remember, it is really never age that allows us to do something, but rather, the ability to demonstrate adequate responsibility. Kids can’t show you they’re responsible unless they know exactly what you expect. Tell them clearly and you’ll be surprised how responsible they can become!

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