Her: “I cannot believe you’re still making your kids’ lunches. Let them make their own sandwiches!”
Him: “They don’t know how.”
Her: “Oh, please. Just show them. Slap a piece of bread on the cutting board and slather some peanut butter on it.”
Him: “But if I do that, they’ll probably just skip lunch. Get off my back. I like helping them out.”
Sound familiar? This recent exchange between two longtime friends is typical of the animated debates that ensue when considering how to teach our kids responsibility. In your own household, it may play out as a debate over whether your son is now old enough to get himself up and out of bed in the morning. Or it may play out between your ears as you deliberate whether to give your daughter an assist (and a certain A) on her homework or insist that she tackle it solo (and risk a less-than-stellar outcome).
As parents, we’re all crystal clear that we need to instill a sense of responsibility in our children. But it’s not always transparent when the time has come to push responsibility our kids’ way. Which responsibility? How much responsibility? Is it OK to turn over some age-appropriate tasks to our kids, but keep others? Where is the line between acceptable pampering (hey, we like making our kids feel special) and holding on too long to satisfy our need to feel needed?
If you were privy to the conversation above, as I was, you might tilt toward the woman when you learn the kids in question are both teenagers. Then again, you might favor the man’s position once you understand that he is a loving father whose parenting time has been sorely curtailed by divorce. When his kids visit every other week, he feels a keen need to do anything and everything to make up for all the anythings and everythings he is missing. It makes him feel good to make those sandwiches.
Moreover, he’s not wrong to worry that if he pushes sandwich detail to his children’s side of the counter, they may opt to forego lunch. Unintended consequences are a given when parents relinquish responsibility to their kids. But until you’re up against it, no matter how small the task, there’s no knowing who will have the tougher stomach for those consequences—your kids or you.
Say yours is the child who, newly tasked with sandwich honors, leaves for school without a lunch bag in hand. Forgetfulness? Calculated disobedience? Either way, your kid will spend the afternoon listening to his stomach growl. Whether those hunger pangs spur him to make a sandwich the next morning or he again goes out the door lunchless, he’ll survive.
The harder question is, will you? If you shift homework responsibility to your child and she hands in an unfinished worksheet, can you tolerate the “incomplete”? If you hand your child the leash and the dog doesn’t get walked, can you tolerate the puddle on the rug? If your child sleeps through his alarm, can you tolerate his being tardy for school?
The truth is, it requires a tough stomach to instill a sense of responsibility in our children. Any honest parent will tell you that. But here’s another truth that gets shared less often: when we don’t ease up on the reins and allow for the consequences of fledgling attempts at responsible behavior, our kids risk internalizing a different lesson entirely. This one has to do with dependence, entitlement and, if it goes on too long, learned helplessness.
One thing is certain: our kids will find unlearning that lesson a whole lot harder than learning how to make a sandwich, no matter how compelling our reasons for delaying responsibility might be.
Jill Smolowe is the author of An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents