Schools have long been grading students on responsibility. But in recent years, teachers report that marks in responsibility have been plummeting. This is an alarming phenomenon – but it is not a coincidence. Responsibility is becoming a rare virtue.
We live in a world where politicians, executives and professionals fail to act responsibly or take responsibility for their actions. Parents, teachers and students often follow suit. Instead of behaving with responsibility, people often are reckless and shift the blame for their mistakes onto others.
A senior politician who “forgot” to report income blames his Turbo Tax software. Homeowners who bought homes with risky mortgages blame the banks for taking them away. CEOs seeking bailouts for their companies travel in exorbitant private jets. Slowly, the very fabric of society withers into a total mess, as the culture of irresponsibility infiltrates our homes and lives.
According to expert mechanchim, this plague of irresponsibility lies at the crux of many chinuch problems. Children and adults are becoming less accountable and less responsible. They are blaming everyone but themselves.
“My child isn’t doing well because he doesn’t have a good rebbe.”
“I didn’t behave because another girl made me be chutzpadik.”
“I’m late because the bus came early.”
Maybe your child doesn’t have a good rebbe, but that doesn’t preclude his halachicobligation to learn Torah. Maybe the girl sitting next to your daughter is disruptive, but that doesn’t grant your daughter a license to misbehave. Maybe the bus came thirty seconds early, but you could have been at the stop sooner.
This culture of irresponsibility is extremely damaging, both on an individual level, and to society at large.
At the last Agudah Convention, Harav Mattisyahu Solomon shlita addressed the painful issue of “When Children Stray.” He said that the phenomenon of children rebelling is a reflection of Klal Yisroel’s rebellion. When the Ribbono shel Olam cried out in anguish, at the beginning of our galus, “Banim gadalti veromamti – I grew and raised children and they betrayed me,” Klal Yisroel should have felt that pain, and responded immediately, “Tatte, we are sorry and we want to return and be loyal to You.”
Unfortunately, Klal Yisroel did not hear the message. Hashem decided that the only way to bring them back is to let them personally feel the pain that kavayochal He is going through.
This refusal to apologize is blatantly irresponsible. A responsible person not only behaves correctly, but also admits errors, accepts blame and does whatever he can to repair the damage.
As Yidden, the ability to take responsibility lies at the heart of our existence. In Parshas Mikeitz, Yaakov Avinu refused to allow Binyamin to travel to Mitzrayim with his brothers. Although the family’s food supply was dwindling, and the Egyptian viceroy had made Binyamin’s presence a condition for purchasing more food, Yaakov feared for Binyamin’s life. Until Yehuda arose. “Anochi e’ervenu” – I will guarantee him, he said. I will take responsibility.” And so, the history of Klal Yisroel unfolded.
This was not the first time Yehuda accepted responsibility. When Tamar presented the staff, cloak and ring of her unborn child’s father, Yehuda said, “Tzadkah memeni” – she is expecting my child. He did this at great personal sacrifice. Yet it is of this union that Malchus Beis Dovid was born, and it is this sense of responsibility that characterized it. Dovid behaved similarly after the episode with Batsheva.
In contrast, when Shmuel Hanavi asked Shaul why he had not killed the animals of Amalek, as Hashem had commanded, he said, “chamal ha’am” – the nation had mercy on the animals, so that they could sacrifice them to Hashem.” He blamed his mistake on the people. This was a two-fold lapse of achrayus. First, Shaul acted irresponsibly by not eradicating Amalek in its entirety, as he had been commanded. Second, he refused to accept responsibility for his mistake, and instead blamed the people. This twofold mistake brought untold suffering upon the Jewish people and cost Shaul his kingdom.
What Is Responsibility?
In regard to chinuch, there are two main aspects of responsibility. The first is the ability to fulfill responsibilities. A person who fulfills responsibilities is answerable to himself, to others and to the Ribbono Shel Olam. His behavior is disciplined, and he follows rules and regulations. He understands that as a member of a family, class and society, there are things he must and must not do.
A responsible person won’t come late to Shacharis, because he believes that it would be wrong to a) himself, because he will miss out on part of the tefillah; b) other mispallelim whom he will disrupt with his entrance; and c) the Ribbono Shel Olam, because his tefillah will be rushed and he may miss out on several Ameins, Amein yehei shemei rabbahs and other chiyuvim.
The second aspect of responsibility is acknowledging the effects of an action or decision and accepting its consequences. A child who does poorly on a test should be able to assess his behavior and come to responsible conclusions. He should tell himself, “I should have studied harder”, “I need to learn how to take better notes” or “I’m going to listen better in class” as opposed to blaming the teacher, the test or the class.
Teaching Responsibility – Role Modeling, Duties And Consequences
There are many ways parents can inculcate responsibility in their children. The first is to be good role models. A child who lives in a disciplined, structured home will grow up to be disciplined and structured – essential middos for responsible living. A child whose parents exhibit a responsibility to others will likely grow up with that same trait. This is required of us. The Torah teaches us, kol Yisroel areivim zeh lazeh. Parents who pursue chessed, are involved in their children’s schools and contribute to tzedakah, model to their children that we do not live for ourselves alone. This attitude is a hallmark of responsibility.
Another way to teach responsibility is to assign age-appropriate chores. Here, parents must tread a fine line between overburdening children and challenging them. If all choices and decisions are made by adults, and children have no responsibilities, they will be dependent and incompetent. If we expect too much of them, they will feel overburdened and again, incompetent, because they won’t be able to fulfill expectations. So parents need to carefully consider the duties they give to their children. Parents should also create rules and enforce them.
Children must be taught not only to act responsibly, but also to accept responsibility for their actions. Parents can teach this by allowing children to experience the natural consequences of their behavior. Children should not get “bailouts” from their parents.
A chronic latecomer should not be given late notes. She should be made to experience the consequences of her lateness. Several doses of detention may be just what she needs to propel her out of bed in the morning.
Why Are People Irresponsible?
People behave irresponsibly because shifting blame is so easy and convenient. It is much easier to blame a person or situation than to acknowledge wrongdoing and change behaviors and habits. It is much easier for a parent to gripe about the rebbe than to learn with his child or hire a tutor. Sadly, in our easy-way-out society, the easy way usually wins.
This “easy way out” lifestyle stems largely from the plenty our community enjoyed in the past decades. Luxury homes, expensive vacations, designer clothing and $85 Kipling briefcases for children have become the norm. Ours is the “es kumt zich mir” generation, the era of instant gratification. “I deserve to get these curtains or buy this dress or take this break.” Even now, with so many amongst us struggling for parnassah, the trend continues. All this luxury comes with a very big price tag.
In Shiras Haazinu the pasuk says, “vayishman yeshurun vayiv’at” – Yeshurun grew fat and kicked [in rebellion]. Their rebellion was a direct result of the abundance that caused them to “grow fat.” Instead of thanking Hashem for His plenty, they attributed their blessings to talent and hard work. They said “kochi v’otzem yadi asa li es hachayil hazeh” – my power and the strength of my hand accomplished this great feat.
There is a certain sense of entitlement and power that comes from living on “easy street.” Children, who have every wish and whim fulfilled, may have a hard time telling themselves “no.” Incidentally, this phenomenon is not correlated to income level. The availability of cheap snacks and toys, bargain stores, and inexpensive clothing has created a society of low-income spendthrifts. Low-income children are just as easily spoiled as their wealthy counterparts.
Whatever their income level, parents must insist on withholding pleasures and giving children responsibilities, otherwise there is a very real danger they won’t develop the ability to do so – even when the pleasures they seek go against rules or societal norms, or could be harmful to themselves or to others. Such children also find it hard to acclimate to the demands of adulthood.
Parents who overly shield and protect their children do so in the name of love. But they are doing their children a great disservice.
When one girl felt pressured in high school, her father called the principal to complain. The menahelexplained that it was important for students to learn to cope with stress and pressure, because school is a training ground for life, and life is full of tension. The father answered –
“My daughter will not have any stress or pressure in her life. I will protect her.”
One can only marvel at the “kochi v’otzem yadi” mindset that brings a father to make such a statement. And one can only hope that his daughter is able to overcome her bewilderment when life hands her a challenge that is beyond her father’s protective reach.
Responsibility vs. Happiness
Not so long ago, all children had chores. It was a given that everyone who lived in a home had to help maintain it. Today, many parents believe that giving children responsibilities means robbing them of the joys of childhood. This attitude is also a reflection of society – where pursuit of happiness is a goal in life, and paradoxically, unhappiness and depression abound.
This unhappiness is largely the result of the lack of responsibility in our generation. Marketers would have us believe that we can purchase joy in a chocolate bar. But nothing could be more fleeting. Did anyone ever rejoice because he had really good chocolate two days ago? On the contrary, responsibility equals satisfaction, and satisfaction equals happiness. People are happiest when they are productive and responsible. Parents who wish to shield their children from responsibility because they want to grant them freedom and happiness, are withholding the keys to the very happiness they want to bestow.
Interestingly, every Jewish simcha is a celebration of responsibility. At a bris, we celebrate the entrance of a Jewish male into the Covenant of Avraham – a pact that brings with it the responsibilities of being a Jew. At a bar or bas mitzvah, we celebrate the entrance of a child into the responsibilities of adulthood. And at a wedding, we celebrate marriage – a union that again brings myriad responsibilities.
As a veteran teacher, I am in a unique position to track societal trends. Thirty years ago, when I would tell parents that their child had a problem, they would become attentive and apologetic. They would ask for advice, and work to improve the situation. Today, parents can’t accept criticism about their children. Complaints are met with disbelief or blame.
“Yanky can’t be misbehaving. It must be a problem in the class.”
“Menachem is not keeping up? He’s so bright. The material is way too hard for this grade level.”
“Of course he didn’t do his homework. You give them so much work, it’s impossible.”
So Yanky and Menachem and all the other sweet innocent little boys are never given the help or direction they need for proper chinuch and growth. Is it any wonder, then, that so many people in our generation are buckling under the responsibilities of adulthood?
It is time for us all to take responsibility for the way we live, spend money, and parent our children. Perhaps the current economic meltdown is meant to cure us of the societal ills that led to Vayishman Yeshurun vayiv’at – and perhaps our response to it will bring us to an era of achrayus, with the rebuilding of Malchus Bais Dovid.
An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at email@example.com.Rifka Schonfeld