Teenagers want to have lots of rights. They want the right to stay out late. They want the right to drive your car. They want the right to have and spend money. They want the right to go on dates, and they want the right to make their own decisions.
Meanwhile, parents want teens to have lots of responsibility. They want teens to be responsible enough not to drink and drive. They want teens to save money for college. They want teens to wait to have sex, and they want teens to clean up after themselves.
A battle ensues between teens who want rights and parents who want the teen to be responsible. Parents don’t want to give the teen the rights because they haven’t yet demonstrated that they’re responsible enough to handle the rights. Conversely, the teen doesn’t want to take on too many responsibilities if he’s not going to earn the rights that come from taking them on.
Long-winded lectures ensue about how important it is to be mature and responsible and teen eyes gloss over while parents babble on and on about the way the world works and how they’re not going to let the teen get his license until he can learn to be… RESPONSIBLE.
What is responsibility and how is a kid supposed to prove he has it? When I ask parents what they mean by ‘being responsible,’ they have a very hard time defining it without using the word ‘responsible.’ They’ll say, “It means taking responsibility for yourself, you know, being responsible for things, doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Hmmm. Okay, ‘doing what you’re supposed to do,’ what does that mean? “Uh, being responsible, you know, doing what you’re supposed to do.” Fact is, “being responsible” is really hard to define. Since that’s the case, we cannot expect kids to know what it means! They have to be taught and the only way to teach them is to give them some responsibilities and let them try to manage them.
When kids are given responsibilities for the first time, we cannot expect that they’re going to handle them very well. In a sense, they’re just learning to walk and they’re going to fall quite a bit. We would never think of humiliating or punishing a toddler who falls after a few tentative steps. Likewise, a teen’s first foray into the world of adult responsibility should be watched with the proud eye of a walking toddler. Much praise and celebration should follow a teen’s early fumbles at being responsible and a parent should help them get up and start over when they take a tumble.
As a teen gets more and more experience with handling various difficult situations, they will become more and more responsible. They just won’t get there magically without practice. So, a parent must set up ways in which a teen can earn access to privileges he’d like to have and then the parent must monitor the teen’s level of responsibility. When it falls below standard, some correction is given, but then the kid needs to get another try. Practice makes perfect.
A kid who has never had to fill up a gas tank with his own money will not learn to cut out unnecessary driving trips. A kid who has never had to pay for the increase of insurance a fender-bender causes does not know how to be careful not to get into minor traffic accidents. If a kid is never pulled over by a police officer, he really doesn’t understand how serious the speed limit signs are. A heartbreak is the only way to learn how dangerous falling in love can be. Flunking a class may be the only way your kid will learn that skipping school results in consequences. Blowing a whole paycheck in one day and not having any money for the next 13 days is a great way to learn about budgeting.
It’s okay to let teens have those types of difficult experiences. Each of those situations results in learning more and more about how the world works and it takes a person who understands how things work to be truly responsible. Unless a kid is allowed some room to make mistakes, make decisions, try theories, experiment with different behavior styles or attitudes, he will never learn what works and what doesn’t, and he’ll never become… RESPONSIBLE.
Should you just stand back and throw your kid into the shark tank and let them sink or swim? No, that would be unreasonable, but it is wise to give a teen some room to try things, all the while, you standing near enough by that you can help them up if they need a hand. Unless they make an irreversible mistake, most of the minor trouble they can get into will help build their character. If you’re watching closely enough, it will be hard for them to make a fatal mistake, although that is always possible, but until a kid has a chance to control his own fate, he’ll always be dependant on you, and dependant people are not RESPONSIBLE.