Not long ago, a parent told me that during his Internet search into homeschooling he could find nothing to satisfy his concerns about developing a sense of responsibility in his child if he decided to teach her at home. While one-on-one teaching at home would certainly boost a child academically, wouldn’t it also create dependency and even prevent opportunities for developing responsibility? After all, in a school a student has to do more than complete assignments—he must get to classes on time and keep track of each teacher’s requirements as well. Certainly, we can all agree that we want our children to become responsible adults, but does this really require sending our kids away to school?
First, let’s look at the public/private school situation. Do all kids rise to the occasion and manage to arrive on time to classes, note each teacher’s assignments, and then follow up by completing all homework? Or do some kids arrive late or even skip class, forget to note assignments, and fail to turn in homework? Since truant officers are employed by schools, we can assume that some kids skip classes altogether. As a former teacher I can also verify that plenty of kids have difficulty juggling everything. Even if they arrive on time and are handed a sheet with assignments written for them, they may lose it among all the other bits of paper in their bags and bundles, or leave it in their locker so that once home, they have no idea what to do. The demands of public or private school, then, are no guarantee that children will become responsible adults.
So what does make the difference between those who manage to handle responsibility and those who fall apart under the load? Parental intervention. In school, kids who make the effort to do everything required generally have parents who consider school success important. Those students diligent about doing their homework often have parents who have made completion of homework a matter of routine.
In this case, the father had been diagnosed with ADHD as a child. He had great difficulty maintaining focus and would perform well at the beginning of a quarter, only to have his grades slip severely by midterm. Because he would work harder when his grades fell, he credited grades as the motivating factor that caused him to stay focused and act responsibly. Because he learned to do what had to be done in school, he assumed that was the situation necessary for everyone.
Certainly the extra push (stress) needed in order to get good grades was a factor in his case. However, during our conversation he acknowledged that his grades dropped because he had lost not only ability to focus, but even the desire to try. At that point, he didn’t care about grades at all. But, his mother did. As he tells it, she kept track of his progress and as soon as his grades dropped, she would “push him.” She told him he was “just being lazy” and insisted that he get his work done—so he did. His desire to succeed—to meet parental expectations—in spite of his difficulties, served as a goal for his focus, but it also meant living on adrenalin. I suspect that the drop in his grades was at least partly due to the need for his body to come down from that adrenalin rush since this period usually includes fatigue and mild depression. However, he assumed his mother’s faulty diagnosis was correct and came to believe that he had become responsible by being forced to overcome laziness in order to juggle all the balls on his own. In the final analysis, though, he succeeded because a parent intervened—if only to make demands.
So, how do we develop a sense of responsibility in our children? Must our children be placed under continual stress? No. In fact, continual stress can be quite damaging. Physically, it can lead to all sorts of ailments, even heart attacks. Emotionally, stress caused by a fear of failure or need for approval can lead to extreme behavior—becoming a perfectionist, workaholic, or even a dropout (“if I don’t try, I can’t fail.” Stress caused by fear of punishment can create bitterness, resentment, and rebellion. Academically, too much stress inhibits creative thinking. Our body is prepared for flight or fight, so we can act according to habit, even memorize information, but our ability to analyze a problem in order to solve it will probably be hindered.
Instead, we develop a sense of responsibility by making our expectations suit the child’s (fill in the blank). Are you thinking “age”? Most do, and that usually results in an atmosphere of tension. The answer is to match our requirements to our child’s capability. That is, we must consider each child’s level of maturity, his ability, and his strengths and weaknesses and adjust our expectations accordingly. We must teach precept upon precept: crawling before walking, walking before running. We must supply support—reminding, helping, encouraging—all along the way.
This father described his eleven-year-old daughter as having extremely weak organizational skills, little sense of time, and some difficulty focusing. He thought that placing her in a middle school situation that required these skills would force her to rise to the challenge—she wouldn’t want to sink, so she would have to learn to swim, as he had. I explained that his demand was like expecting a small child still learning to walk to run quickly to the car and independently strap himself into the car seat. She was already spending all day at school and all evening on homework. Weary with the struggle, she didn’t yet have the added burden of changing classes. I assured him that her weak skills could be addressed methodically at home and didn’t require her to remain in school. I also pointed out that the development of responsible behavior is an accumulation of experiences, many of which have nothing to do with school in or out of the home.
We teach our children how to perform all sorts of tasks and how to behave in all sorts of situations. When we also make sure that they actually follow through, we are teaching them to become responsible. Do they have assigned chores? Are they expected to contribute to the care of a pet? Are we making it clear that they must attend every meeting, be prepared, and on time when they participate in a group activity such as sports, band, orchestra, or acting in a play? Are we teaching them to arrive on time to classes, events, and church services?
We, of course, should model the behavior we expect. But, more than that, we must provide and carry out regular consequences. If we have insisted that a task be finished before they can play outside, then we have to stick to it. If they have behaved as we hoped, we should offer a simple word of encouragement—“Good job” or “Thanks for doing that without even needing a reminder.” In all of these cases, we help them succeed by adding whatever support may be needed. We must remember that we are shaping our children. It’s unreasonable to demand independence and responsibility until they are capable of succeeding. So, we give them small goals, developing independence bit by bit, in various areas, according to their capabilities. We walk slowly and patiently next to the toddler when he wants to get to the car himself, and we have time to help him develop independence. If we’re in a rush, we carry him instead of nagging him to hurry. But just because we have to carry him sometimes, doesn’t mean this will always be the case.
Children with difficulties may have to take smaller steps and have supervision for a longer period of time, but that does not mean they will remain dependent and irresponsible, as the questioning parent feared. Some kids handle responsibility more easily as teens because of the increase in ability to focus maturity brings. But all teenagers still need guidance, not the automatic expectation that they should behave a certain way just because they are older. In fact, teaching our kids to recognize their weaknesses (with the understanding that we all have them) and experimenting with various methods in order to find ways to manage in spite of them is much more helpful than berating children for failing. While all this does require time and supervision, independence and a sense of responsibility can certainly be developed outside of a life in public or private school. Happily, the parent mentioned here agreed.