“My child is failing because his teachers are terrible and don’t know what they are doing.”
“I gained weight because I never have any time to exercise.”
“I’m late because the bus came early.”
No one wants to take responsibility for their flaws and mistakes. Instead, we constantly blame forces outside of our control. According to expert mechanchim, this plague of irresponsibility lies at the crux of many of our chinuch problems. As the years go by, children and adults are becoming less accountable and less responsible. They are blaming everyone but themselves. This culture of irresponsibility is extremely damaging, both on an individual level, and to society as a whole.
At a recent Agudah Convention, Rav Mattisyahu Solomon 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,” we should have felt that pain and immediately responded, “Tatteh, we are sorry and we want to return and be loyal to You.”
Unfortunately, we did not hear the message. So 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 a blatant act of irresponsibility. A responsible person not only behaves a certain way, he also admits errors, accepts blame, and does whatever he can to repair the damage.
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 roles he must play and things he must and must not do.
The second aspect of responsibility is the ability to acknowledge the effects of an action or decision, and to accept its consequences. A child who does poorly on a test should be able to assess his behavior and come to responsible conclusions. Responsible students will tell themselves, “I should have studied harder,” “I need to learn how to take better notes,” or “I’m going to have to listen better in class.”
Role Modeling, Duties, and Consequences
There are many things parents can do to inculcate responsibility in their children. The first is to be good role models. That means that we need to parent responsibly. 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 the world we live in will grow up with the same sense of responsibility.
The Torah teaches us to be responsible for each other. Kol Yisroel areivim zeh lazeh. When parents actively pursue chessed, are involved in their children’s schools, and contribute to tzedakah, they model to their children that we do not live for ourselves alone. This is a hallmark of responsibility.
Another way to teach responsibility is to give children 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 expectations and responsibilities, they will be dependent and incompetent. If there is too much expected of them, they will feel overburdened and again, incompetent, because they won’t be able to fulfill expectations.
Responsibility vs. Happiness
Not so long ago, all children had household chores. It was a given that everyone who lived in a home had to play a role in maintaining and helping it function. Today, many parents believe that childhood should be carefree and fun. They feel that by burdening their children with responsibilities, they are robbing them of the joys of carefree childhood. This attitude is also a reflection of the society we live in. It is a world where pursuit of happiness is a goal in life. It is also a world where unhappiness and depression abound.
This is largely because of the lack of responsibility so prevalent around us. 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. There can be no joy like the satisfaction of a job well done. People experience inner happiness when they are productive and responsible.
The pursuit of happiness leaves one with a feeling of emptiness. Dr. Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D., author of Taking Responsibility, says that responsibility is tied to self esteem, and that people who can’t take responsibility feel helpless.
He writes that a child grows by wanting responsibility. The child wants to talk, to walk, to be independent. His greatest joy is accomplishment – “I can tie my shoes; I can make my own lunch; I can study and do well.” In contrast, when a child’s choices and decisions are made by adults, with no expectations and responsibilities, he becomes stifled, dependent, and incompetent.
So parents who wish to shield their children from responsibilities because they want them to enjoy life in freedom and happiness, are doing their children a tremendous disservice. They are withholding the keys to the very happiness they want to bestow.
As a veteran teacher, I am in a unique position to track societal trends. Thirty years ago, when I would tell a parent that a child had a problem, the parent would become attentive and apologetic. He would ask for advice and guidance, and work to improve the situation. Today, it is more difficult for all of us to take responsibility. Often, complaints are met with disbelief or blame.
It is time for us all to take responsibility for the way we live, spend money, and parent our children. It’s time for us to stop playing the blame game.