What Do You Think? Responsible or Obedient?

Most parents accept promoting a sense of responsibility in their children as one of their roles.

We all want our children to be responsible for certain chores…

diane sitting on steps with three kids…like doing their school work well, or cleaning up their rooms—what we expect our children to be responsible for can be an extensive list.
In the excellent book Pick up Your Socks… And Other Skills Growing Children Need! A Practical Guide to Raising Responsible Children, author Elizabeth Crary invites readers to consider the differences between responsibility and obedience.

She says obedience is about having a child do what that child has been told to do. She notes that obedience needs no agreement on the part of the child; the decision as to what to do is made for the child.

With responsibility, there is both acceptance of and motivation for completing a task.

The obedient child is told what to do and may feel if they don’t comply, there will be unpleasant consequences.

The child experiences no sense of personal power. There is no room for questioning or negotiating. It does not promote learning to question, negotiate, problem solve or be creative.

When parents encourage children to be responsible, there is a component of some power on the part of the child, coupled with clarity about the specifics of a request and motivation on the part of the child to assume that responsibility.

Crary says there are three parts to being responsible.

The first is knowing the child understands the task; meaning, they understand what is to be done and how to do it. If the child does not understand the task or how to accomplish it, they can be criticized as being lazy or incompetent when it’s not really their fault they cannot complete the task.

For example, suppose the child is told to clean up her room. If she does not understand what that actually means, she may struggle with what to do, where to put things, how to dust or vacuum, what to do with trash, or even how to decide what is trash.

While for some adults, it might seem obvious what you do to clean a room, until specifics have been explained to the child, it can be hard for a child to be responsible in the ways the parent wishes the child would be.

The second component of responsibility Crary shares is that there needs to be an acceptance of the task, which is actually a shifting from obedience to responsibility.

She makes the point that if there is no choice, don’t ask or say “please.” If there is no choice, the parent is expecting obedience.

If instead the parent is asking the child to take responsibility, for example saying, “Would you please help me take the groceries from the car?” it is implied that a child has the right to say “No.”

Child carrying grocery bagYet some parents are expecting obedience and would not tolerate a child saying, “No” to a request. But by its very nature, the request is not a demand. Crary says it is important for children to learn how to say no sometimes.

A parent could respond to that child’s “No” by saying, “I can tell you are not thrilled about helping with this. Please understand that I’m not real thrilled either that I have to do it. I was hoping you would want to take responsibility as a member of the family. That’s why I asked you.”

By sharing a perspective like this, most children might shrug their shoulders a bit and then decide to help, because helping feels good even if you don’t like a particular task.

It encourages the child when a parent smiles and says, “Thanks for stepping up and taking responsibility for helping with something that’s good for all of us—we all need groceries!” A comment like this plants the seed in the child’s belief system that they are learning to be responsible.

The third component of responsibility is the ability to motivate oneself.
Crary says, “As children grow older, one of the parent’s jobs is to shift the source of the child’s motivation from the parent (external motivation) to the child (internal motivation), and to help the child develop the ability to discipline himself or herself for long-term benefits rather than short-term gain. This shift is one that comes partly with age and partly with experience.” [Page 10]

She shares how important it is to offer encouragement in the form of praise or reward for a young child. Then as a child grows, the source of encouragement gradually shifts to an internal one in which the child is self-motivating.

Adults who have been forced to do tasks as a way of being obedient may struggle with taking responsibility because after a while, forced obedience leads to resentment and sometimes sneakiness, defiance and rebellion.

Learning ways to promote responsibility in one’s children versus obedience (and please know that there are times when a child must be obedient to a parent) takes more time than demanding obedience, and yet is an important role for which parents need to take responsibility.

And yes, I get the irony of the statement :-).

Invitation for Reflection

1. When you were growing up was the distinction between being responsible and being obedient clear to you? How did that affect your beliefs and behaviors?
2. How does this information help you as a parent to distinguish the importance of promoting responsibility in children as well as having them be obedient?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute, LGI