Responsibility: Children Can Handle It
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“Responsibility: Children Can Handle It,” Ensign, July 1978, 47


Children Can Handle It

You’ve seen them. They’re the five-year-old children wearing horribly mismatched clothing. They’re the seven-year-olds carrying out garbage cans twice as big as they are. They’re the eleven-year-olds pushing shopping baskets in the supermarket, carefully following a grocery list.

Who are they? The children whose parents are teaching them to be responsible.

When does a person become an adult? A pretty good standard might be: When he can make his own decisions and abide by their consequences. Latter-day Saint parents are trying to follow the Lord’s admonition: “I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth.” (D&C 93:40.) Children are born innocent and helpless; as they grow older, they must be taught to make decisions. Faithful parents try to teach their children the joy of making righteous decisions, believing that if they “train up a child in the way he should go … when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Prov. 22:6.) To explore this important concern, the Ensign talked with dozens of parents. Here are some general conclusions from that experience.

How can you teach a child to make decisions? If you always make decisions for the child, he learns little; if you let him decide for himself, he may decide incorrectly.

Personal accountability is the key,” says Bishop Lloyd Wilson of Pacifica, California. “They generally know what is right and what is wrong—we’ve taught them that. We tell them that when they do know what is right and what is wrong, then they are capable of making the right decisions. Sometimes the right choice isn’t the one they want to make, but they know what they should do. And if the choice is one where they really don’t know what’s right and wrong, then we figure they aren’t yet ready to make that decision for themselves.”

Are they ready yet? Most parents agree that you teach children to be responsible by giving them responsibility. But how much responsibility a child is ready to cope with is often hard to decide. Some decisions are obvious: Few parents would assign a four-year-old to run the power lawn mower; and a sixteen-year-old who can’t choose his or her own clothes has probably been left without responsibility far too long. But when the choice narrows down to whether you should get a babysitter for this Friday night or leave your eleven-year-old in charge of the other children, it can be a real dilemma.

There is danger in giving too much responsibility to children too soon, but there is also danger in giving too little too late.

Too much too soon leads to failure. The child who simply isn’t ready to be responsible for watering the lawn will likely fail in the task. If he’s punished for falling short of expectations—or even if he has the responsibility taken away from him—he’s likely to feel as if he isn’t trusted or trustworthy. A few such failures can be coped with—but if the child is consistently thrust into situations he can’t handle, and therefore consistently fails, he is likely to begin believing that he’s incompetent, and this can be a great barrier to his taking responsibility for his own decisions.

“We try to start them out making decisions in areas where wrong choices won’t cause any lasting harm,” say Brother and Sister Robert Pixton of Orlando, Florida. “For instance, the choice of clothes. Our two-year-old already chooses what she is going to wear. On Sundays we try to make sure they are matched—if she insists on wearing a certain top we try to guide her to the right matching bottom. But otherwise, it’s up to her!”

Does it work? “Well, at first they pick the most horrible combinations,” said Sister Pixton, laughing. “I used to wonder why parents would let their children go out wearing some of the things they did. Now I know.” But after a few years the children become sensitive to color combinations and learn to choose well at rather early ages.

“Our proving ground was the ice cream store,” said a father in Orem, Utah. “We’d let the children choose their own flavors, no matter how grotesque they sounded to us. But there were no seconds—if they chose wrong, they missed having a good dessert. They were willing to experiment, but they soon learned to ask for a taste of the bizarre-sounding flavors before they ordered a whole cone!”

When the children are too young or unready to make decisions of major importance, they can still make decisions where the outcome won’t have lasting consequences. If it means that a child gets to make a mustard, banana, and raisin sandwich and then goes hungry for one lunch when he finds out that it’s horrible, at least he will have learned, with very little harm done, that when he makes decisions he has to live with the consequences. The lesson is then more easily transferred to other choices he’ll have to make, when the consequences are more lasting.

How Big Is the Responsibility?

Very similar jobs can often be quite different in the amount of responsibility involved. For instance: suppose you assign your child to take out the garbage. That assignment can mean varying degrees of responsibility. Easiest of all is just carrying out the bags and putting them in the cans with the lids shut tight—whenever Mother or Father asks.

The responsibility is much greater when the child is required to do it regularly, without being asked each time.

Likewise, a child can probably be assigned the job of lawn-watering—making the choice of where to set the sprinkler, how fast to run the water, and how long to leave it on—long before he can be given the responsibility of noticing when the lawn needs watering.

By simplifying a task, parents can give certain responsibilities to their children much earlier than they might have thought possible. “If you try to treat them all the same,” says Sister Parkhurst of Orlando, Florida, “it isn’t fair because they are all so different.” But the job can be adjusted to fit the child. If age eight is when children start taking out the garbage, it may mean that one child has full responsibility at that age—while another is only ready to do it with Dad helping.

“But you get them started doing something that they feel is their job,” Sister Parkhurst says. “You don’t always give them adult responsibilities, but they do deserve responsibilities suited to their age and ability.” If you never trust them at all, they end up getting too little responsibility, and getting it too late. A child who is still having his clothes chosen for him at age fifteen is going to feel, correctly, that his parents don’t trust him to have much sense. And yet he’ll feel that he deserves trust. He’ll notice that his peers are being given much more freedom of choice than he. And either he may conclude that his parents are right, and he doesn’t merit trust, or he may conclude that his parents aren’t being fair and he may insist on freedom—which he may quite possibly misuse, having had no practice at making decisions.

One of the best ways to gradually give the child responsibility, while making sure not to give him more than he can handle, is to assign a task and, as the child becomes competent to do it, gradually withdraw supervision. The child may never notice that responsibility has been increased—I remember well the hours my mother spent helping me learn to bake a scratch cake; what I don’t remember is when she stopped hovering over me in the kitchen. Somewhere along the line she decided I could handle the job alone. No great fuss was made over it, but from then on I was able to find my way around the kitchen without any major disasters. I just took it for granted that I could be trusted to do the job right—because my mother trusted me.

Do My Children Know That I Respect Them?

Children don’t think of themselves as childish. Their problems and concerns are of vital concern to them—they want their parents to take them seriously, too. A child is far more likely to listen to his parents’ advice if they have listened carefully to his problem before they respond. “When I tell my children, ‘You’ll get over it,’ or ‘It’s just a stage you’re going through,’ they really get upset,” says a mother in Santa Clara, California. “I’ve learned just to take those phrases out of my vocabulary. After all, I take my problems seriously, and I’ll get over them, too—and as often as not, I’m just going through a stage.”

One of the main reasons for treating children with respect, pointed out the Gearigs in Detroit, Michigan, is that in their teens, children inevitably realize that on many questions, if they want to, they can disobey their parents. If at that point they believe their parents don’t respect their ability to make decisions, they may simply decide to cut their parents out of their decision-making.

“But we decided that part of teaching children to be responsible,” says one mother, “is recognizing when we have to let them make their own decisions, even when there really is danger. We can’t protect them all their lives.” And for the parents, a moment of truth came when their relationship with one of their sons seemed to be on the line. The mother tells the story:

“We had taught our sons over the years that they were not going to play football. We were afraid that any injury during their growing years would be permanent. So we just raised them knowing they weren’t going to play football. We thought we’d done a marvelous job!

“Then one of our sons got into junior high school and the coach said, ‘Wow, you’ve got the right build for the team,’ and so our son came home and said he wanted to play football. My first response was to say, ‘I thought we were in agreement on this.’ But of course we weren’t. We had told him this all his life, but he had never actually had to decide for himself whether or not to play—and so he just hadn’t bothered to argue. Until now.

“It became a really emotional thing with him. As his father and I discussed it with him, he got so upset that he was shaking. It was frightening, and so we ended the discussion by saying, ‘We’re not going to talk about it anymore, you just go to bed.’ He went to bed, and he was just furious. Dean and I looked at each other and we couldn’t believe this was happening; we’d never had a disagreement like that with any of our children.

“So when we knelt down for our personal prayers, we both prayed about it. We realized that our relationship with that boy was on the line. We just couldn’t arbitrarily decide on this; we couldn’t force him into following our will, because we were afraid it would leave a lot of hostility between us, make it harder for us to communicate with him in the future.

“When we got up from our prayers, we looked at each other and smiled. We both had been given the same answer, that this was his decision, not ours. And so the next morning Dean took him into the parlor and shut the doors and explained to him that we had decided it was his decision after all. He knew how we felt—that we weren’t just trying to spoil his fun, but that football was dangerous and we were afraid for him—but we were leaving it up to him.

“He came out of the room just smiling, and I thought to myself, ‘Maybe this is really worth it.’ I was still afraid he might end up with a trick knee or something, but our relationship was much more important, because if we lost him over football, we might have no influence over him when he had to decide about chastity or a mission or Church activity.

“Of course, he decided to play football. And we supported him in his decision—we went to his games, we showed an interest in his experience.

“And then one day he didn’t bring his equipment home. I said, ‘Oh, did you forget your equipment?’ And he said no, he had turned it in. I asked why, and he said, ‘That coach is crazy. He doesn’t care anything about us—we could get killed as long as we win; that’s all he cares about. And I’m sick of him swearing at us all the time. So I just turned in my equipment.’

“I had to bite my tongue, but I didn’t say, ‘I told you so.’ Actually, I hadn’t told him so! He found his own reasons for quitting. And so when he didn’t play football anymore in junior high, it was his decision, not ours. And so he didn’t mind. He knew that we trusted him enough to let him make his own decision.”

Once our children grow up, their adult lives will be full of decisions that have long-lasting, even eternal, consequences. At some point they have to begin making those vital decisions. Will they be ready? If they’ve had practice in decision making, they’ll be better prepared than if they haven’t. But some of them will still make some decisions that worry their parents, still make some decisions that cause anguish for them and their families, no matter how well they have been taught.

But there are also many, many times when a child trained to be responsible chooses well; and a son or daughter who freely chooses righteousness is the greatest reward a parent can have.

  • Orson Scott Card, a freelance writer, is gospel doctrine teacher in the Twenty-first Ward, Salt Lake Emigration Stake.

Illustrated by Parry Merkley