Sarah’s Corner: Are We Raising Responsible Children or Obedient Children?


Are We Raising Responsible Children or Obedient Children?

Sarah Pachter

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, everyone’s roles drastically changed. Responsibilities expanded for parents, teachers, medical professionals, and many others.

Parents found themselves working from home while simultaneously teaching their children the school’s curriculum. Medical professionals bravely exposed themselves to ill patients while attempting to protect themselves and their family. Pirkei Avot tells us, “In the place where there is no person, strive to be a person.”[1] Our generation took a tremendous step up in responsibility.

But are we raising the next generation to do the same? With repeated pod and school closures, many families have spent much of the year has required distance learning These kinds of questions may regularly float throughout the house:

Did you do your math assignment and turn it in?

Aren’t you supposed to be in Zoom class right now? Why are you wandering around the house?

Can you please clean up after you use the bathroom so it’s clean for everyone else?

Before the pandemic, when I was simply reminding my children of their responsibilities outside of school hours, the onus of that responsibility was manageable. But when my children were home 24/7, the need to constantly remind them to stay on top of their tasks became unbearable. I felt myself becoming a helicopter parent.

My children usually displayed respect and cooperation, but somehow the responsibility was still on me, and that needed to shift. Obedience and respect are important factors, but more crucial to raising kids into becoming independent adults is responsibility.

Developing responsibility within children begins with their understanding that it is their choices that lead to a desired outcome. In his book. I’m Not the Boss I Just Work Here, Howard Jonas shares a joke. Two construction workers, Max and Sam, met daily during their break from their arduous labor.

They opened up their lunches, and Max, took out a delicious hero sandwich with thick, crispy bread and mouth-watering sauce. Sam caught sight of his friend’s meal while opening his own lunch and stared at his bland sandwich, on whole wheat no less.

“Ugh, I hate peanut butter and jelly. I wish I had a hero like yours!” he complained.

The next two days, Max brought various gourmet meals, while Sam popped open the same PBJ sandwich. “Again?” he muttered, thoroughly agitated.

Max looked at Sam and said, “If you don’t like your lunch, why don’t you ask your wife to make you something different?”

Sam responded, “My wife doesn’t make my lunch. I do!”[2]

For the most part, life unfolds the way it does because of the choices we make. Responsibility is owning your choices by developing the long-term vision to recognize where they lead. This concept is difficult for children because they have not yet strengthened the frontal cortex of their brain, which links current actions to future outcomes.[3]

To combat this deficiency, we can teach our children that they are in control of how their day looks. When we turn the locus of control towards them, they are handed power and can begin to link action with outcome.

We have a rule in our house that what we need to do comes before what we want to do. As soon as responsibilities are completed, the fun can begin. Literally, as I was editing this article, my son asked me, “Mom, can I go to my friend’s house at 12:30?”

I answered, “I don’t know, you tell me. You are in control of your time and how fast you finish what you need to do.” That was all the motivation he needed.

We can also share the following steps with our children, using the peanut butter sandwich analogy for ease of comprehension:

1. Recognition: Noticing the link between current choice and future outcome. If I make a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, then that’s what I have to eat.

An example from a child’s perspective:  I noticed that when I don’t complete my homework and my room is messy, I don’t get to watch TV. I’d like to watch more TV.

2. Internalization: Turning locus of control inward. I have many other possible choices. I can menu-plan in advance so that I will be happy with my choice for lunch.

An example from a child’s perspective: I guess I need to clean my room and do my homework today.

My son shared a perfect example of recognition and internalization with me recently. “Mom, I was angry at you for something and wanted to complain and yell. I stopped myself and thought, ‘If I yell and scream, you might take away my phone or get more upset. But if I calm down and explain myself, you will probably let me do something I want to do.’” I would never have known what his inner process was had he not shared it with me. I was proud because he conquered himself and remained calm, knowing where anger would lead him.

3. Execution: Taking an alternate action to achieve desired results. Buying different ingredients will allow me to prepare something new.

An example from a child’s perspective: Hey Mom, look! I cleaned my clean room and studied for my test. I got a 92!

The final step is execution. With every task that needs completion, the responsibility falls either on the adult or the child to execute.

Take the example of asking your child to clean his or her room. In the scenario where the responsibility falls upon the adult, the parent makes the assumption that their version of clean matches the child’s version. The parent does not explain what a clean room entails, and when the adult makes the request, the child procrastinates, executes the task poorly, or ignores the question. The parent may remind or threaten until the child complies. A power struggle is created, the room might not be cleaned to satisfaction, and both sides are frustrated. In this example, the outcome of a task depends on the parent micromanaging the process.

Alternately, the responsibility can fall on the child, which plays out as follows: The parent clearly models or explains their expectations of a clean room and timeline for completion in advance. The child can choose when he or she completes the task within the timeframe and is clear on the consequences of failure (For example: requirement to clean additional rooms in the house). There is no yelling, nagging, or power struggle because the child is aware of the explicit expectations and consequences in advance.

Here are the vital steps[4] to consider when fostering this in your home:

  1. Set clear expectations. Explain exactly what a clean room looks like. Model tidy clothing, bed making, and point out what needs to be removed from the floor. For distance learning, explain exactly what the student needs to do: be in class on time, no gaming or other websites allowed during class, and homework must be turned in on time.
  2. Set clear consequences. If the child expresses a negative attitude or refuses to comply, they lose a privilege. If he or she does a great job, a reward is given. 
  3. Let go and let them. Sure, we want the beds made immediately and the chores done how we envision. But children are not robots and there is always another way to accomplish something. Letting go requires humility; that is where growth lies.

When we teach our children independence, we grow into ourselves, as well. Practice this system, I will too, and let’s keep each other posted on our growth!

[1] Pirkei Avot, 2:6

[2] I’m Not the Boss, I just Work Here, Howard, Jonas, pg. 45