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One of the most difficult tasks when it comes to raising children is teaching responsibility. We eventually want our children to have autonomy and the freedom to make decisions for themselves in most situations, but the road there can be pretty frustrating.

Sometimes bestowing certain privileges is a no-brainer, while other times it may seem like your child might never be able to handle the responsibilities of being an adult.

In this episode we will share from our experiences, successes, and failures when it comes to granting privileges and teaching responsibility. We will share a valuable focal point that will help you as you try to hold a balance between privileges and responsibility.

Highlights, Takeaways, & Quick Wins
  • Privileges grow with responsibility.
  • Responsibility is ownership of a task or idea.
  • Link privilege to the responsibility a child is taking on so they can more easily grasp why they should take ownership.
  • When you act irresponsibly, you limit your freedom.
  • Reinforce the idea that a loss of privilege is not tied to your child’s identity or self-worth.
  • Don’t expect different kids to successfully take on responsibilities at the same rate, because every kid is different.
  • Make your family’s values your focal point and everything else will fall into place eventually.
  • Take responsibility for your own choices.
  • The more you know your kid, the easier it is to see what responsibilities they’re ready for, regardless of their age.
  • Remember that your children are individuals.
  • Teach your children that they can do hard things, and they can handle the frustration and discomfort of doing those things.
Show Notes
  • 03:41 Ben: First, I want to talk about the relationship between privileges and responsibilities. To do that, I want to dissect the word “privileges.” Privileges are freedoms. As adults, we experience them without thinking about them as privileges. We get to pick our own clothes. We get to decide what to do with our time at the end of the day before we go to bed. We can stay up and watch a movie or read a book. There are bigger freedoms and privileges that we get as adults, too. Maybe that comes in the form of being able to take a vacation, travel somewhere, or do something fun or entertaining.
  • 04:28 For kids, a lot of it comes down to autonomy and being able to do things for themselves—the freedom to do certain activities, play certain games, have time to play video games, and getting their own food when they want to.

The more responsibilities someone takes on, the more privileges they’re afforded—privileges grow with responsibility.

  • 05:07 We’ve seen that with our kids. We’ve seen the opposite of that, too. A recent example is with our four year old twins. When they take a nap, we were allowing them the privilege of having stuffed animals. That seems like a really basic thing. They’re kids, they get stuffed animals. Yesterday, Rachel walked in to get them up from their nap, and there was stuffed animal stuffing all over the floor. That privilege of having a stuffed animal was up against the responsibility of not destroying the stuffed animal. That’s a really basic example.
  • 06:17 Another example is one of the privileges our oldest had, which was being able to play his video game in his room. That comes along with the responsibility of setting a timer, and when the timer goes off, stopping and bringing the iPad back to us and saying, “Okay, my time is up.” Again, that seems really straightforward. If he doesn’t do that, if his timer goes off and he continues playing, he doesn’t have the privilege of being able to do that in the privacy of his own room. He has to be monitored, because he’s not being responsible with that.
  • 07:13 Specific privileges can grow with specific responsibilities. There could be something really specific, like letting your child play video games in their room because they are consistently stopping when the timer goes off, over and over again.
  • 07:32 Rachel: You’ve proven that you are responsible enough.
  • 07:42 Ben: If your child displays a general sense of responsibility, they might earn privileges in areas that aren’t related. It’s assumed that because they demonstrated responsibility in this area, it translates to them being responsible in some other area. This is consistent with life experience. The more responsibility someone is willing to take as an adult, the more privilege and power they are given. If someone is consistently acting irresponsibly—consistently running late, not meeting deadlines, or not fulfilling their duties—privileges and freedoms are taken away. Some managers decide that they need to micromanage that person now because they need someone looking over their shoulder.
  • 08:39 We’ve all had managers like that, even when we’ve been responsible. We know how awful that feels. This time of raising children in the home is a great time to help our children grasp the relationship between responsibility and privileges. Jeremiah in the chat says, “Coloring on the walls equals no more colors without parental supervision.” Yeah.

What Is Responsibility?

  • 09:17 Rachel: It’s being given something to do. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a hard thing for me to define.
  • 09:27 Ben: It is. I like to think about responsibility as ownership of a task or idea. There’s a difference between responsibility and obedience, because obedience can come from a lot of different things. It can come from respect and love. It can also come from fear, not necessarily of the person giving the direction, but of the potential outcome. Ownership is more, “I understand why this needs to be done. I see the benefit of doing it, and I want to do it.” We’ll talk about that more. I want to talk about where the motivation comes from for taking ownership, for taking responsibility.
  • 10:29 Privileges play a huge role. Similar to the way we talk about consequences, there’s that old saying, “Let the punishment fit the crime,” and I definitely don’t like the world “punishment.” As much as we can, when there’s some offense or misbehavior, we try to make sure that the consequence is related to that misbehavior. That way, they can see how the thing they’re experiencing as a consequence to their choices is related to their choice. If it’s arbitrary or unrelated, it’s a lot more difficult for them to understand why they shouldn’t do that thing. Privilege is really similar to taking responsibility.

If a privilege is linked to the responsibility a child is taking on, they can more easily grasp why they should take ownership.

  • 11:48 Going back to the video game example, one of the things our oldest wants when he wants to play the video game in his room is for his brothers not to bother him. He wants the privilege of having his own space. That can work for a lot of different things. In that specific scenario, I say, “If you want your own space, I can’t come check on you constantly, and I don’t want to do that. That means that, if you want to have your own space, you need to be the one who sets the timer, recognizes when it goes off, and makes the right choice to stop playing and bring the iPad back to me. If you can take on that responsibility, you can have all the privacy you want.”
  • 12:44 I think I’ve even said things like that to the kids before, both in a specific and a really general sense. Sometimes, out of desperation, I say, “If you guys were responsible and took care of your own stuff, you could do whatever you wanted. I wouldn’t bother you.” That’s the dream. It’s better to make sure they understand the connection between the privilege they want and the responsibility that goes with that than to try and give them an unrelated reward. “If you’re responsible and you turn the thing off when it’s time and you bring it back to me, then you’ll get a treat or a cookie.” That doesn’t make as strong of a connection for them.

Should Privileges Ever Be Taken Away?

  • 13:43 Rachel: When it’s connected to the responsibility that they fail to follow through on, yes.
  • 13:51 Ben: I agree. This is how it woks in the real world. When you act irresponsibly, you become limited in your freedom. It’s really important for our children to learn these lessons as they grow up in an environment where they’re loved and their identity isn’t linked to their behavior. They need to have those experiences now because there isn’t as much at stake for them. To create an environment that doesn’t reflect how things work in the real world is doing them a disservice. It’s not fun to take privileges away, but it’s often for the better of everyone involved. In our family, we have six kids. One of the Community members, Jeremiah, has seven.
  • 15:03 Taking away certain privileges when someone is not being responsible kind of becomes a necessity in that situation. I can’t allow for someone’s irresponsibility to affect every other person in the family. It’s not as cut and dry as that. It can get really complicated.

If you’re taking privileges away, reinforce the idea that the loss of privilege is not tied to your child’s identity or their self-worth.

  • 15:50 The thing that’s really difficult is that you want privileges for your child. You want them to have those freedoms, and you want them to take on that responsibility because you know the benefits of that. When your child doesn’t quite get that yet, it’s difficult. You feel frustrated for them, and at the same time, you’re dealing with those emotions.
  • 16:20 Rachel: Most of mine is frustration at them.
  • 16:26 Ben: That’s okay. When your child sees anger on your face or they hear a harsh tone, they don’t understand that that is about what they did. Often, they associate that with what they did and who they are. Now, they’re afraid of taking on responsibility, because they’re afraid of making a mistake. As parents, it’s really difficult not to be emotionally expressive in a situation where we’re having to take away privileges.
  • 17:05 Rachel: It’s not just the anger—it’s also the disappointment. When I was a kid, when I was disciplined, I was spanked when I was younger but not when I got older. I have some scars from that, but I was mostly disciplined through disappointment. It was like, “If you mess up or don’t follow through on this responsibility, I’m going to show you how disappointed I am in you.” That also has affects on how secure a child is in their identity. I fought all my life to figure out whether I was disappointing people. That can turn you into a people-pleaser, or it can turn you into someone else entirely. I struggle with this when I’m in a discipline moment, trying not to express my extreme disappointment in what they’ve chosen to do.
  • 18:14 Ben: I want to be careful not to scare parents or make you feel like you’re messing your child up because you feel like you barely have control over how you respond in those situations. It is very hard. It’s just important to be aware of that potential. Honestly, it’s going to happen. Unless you’re a super-human, it’s nearly impossible to hold back every emotional expression that you have. What’s important is, when you can, circle back and make sure you reinforce the idea that what your child does is not who they are to you. Also, your disappointment and frustration is for them, not at them.
  • 19:15 In the moment, it may feel like it’s at them. It may cost you something personally when somebody else makes a mistake. The overriding feeling is that you want this for them. You also want it for yourself, but you can’t let them be responsible for your feelings. You are responsible for your feelings, so mostly, you want this for them. It may be that your child is not developmentally in a place where they’re not ready for that yet. They’re not ready to take on certain responsibilities. This has been the most difficult thing with our boys, especially our twins.
  • 20:11 I know it sounds a certain way coming from their dad, but they are all very intelligent. They’ve all excelled academically, and they’ve always been ahead of the curve intellectually. It’s difficult to see that and not assume that same level of aptitude in other areas. That has lead us to hold false expectations from time to time that really get us into trouble.
  • 20:48 Rachel: Because we have several, we compare between the two. If the oldest was able to do a certain thing by a certain age, we think that number two will be able to do that as well. This came into play with potty training. Number one potty trained at two years old. Number two wasn’t fully potty trained until he was four. He was still wetting the bed at night, and I remember being so frustrated and disappointed because of that. I thought, “He should be able to do this,” but those were false expectations.

Don’t expect different kids to successfully take on responsibilities at the same rate, because every kid is different.

  • 21:23 Ben: If we’re being honest, our four year old twins did not get the same kind of attention and care that the other ones did when they were little. It wasn’t that we were being neglectful, but we were raising other young boys.
  • 21:42 Rachel: When the twins were born, we had four kids two and younger. That’s overwhelming to me.
  • 21:55 Ben: We couldn’t give them the same kind of attention. They were also born premature, and they’re twins, so that complicates things in terms of how they communicate things and share ideas. Even today, we’re struggling through holding false expectations over them based on what we experienced with our other kids. It’s a constant fight for us to remember to not project our expectations on them based on what we’ve experienced before, but to look at them individually and objectively. We haven’t fully figured that out. We’re still struggling through that.
  • 22:55 Rachel: There was somebody who stopped me on the side of the road and said, “I see you every morning, walking your boys to school, and you look like you have it together.” I started laugh-crying and said, “Oh my gosh, no.”

Keeping Your Focus

  • 23:18 Ben: I’d like to create a focal point that is going to make things a lot easier. It’s good to deal with things on a case by case basis. When you’re talking about responsibility and privileges, you almost can’t talk about those things without talking about misbehavior, consequences, mistakes, and all of those things. They are very intermingled. It can get very easy to try to zoom in too far and make it complicated, making the idea of responsibility a complicated thing. You can say, “You’re not being responsible in this specific area, and we need to work on this area.”
  • 24:10 When I was thinking about this, I thought of something I learned from the study of the Bible. The Pharisees had 613 laws, I think, that they had come up with. They extrapolated those from the original Ten Commandments. If you zoom out, if you followed the Ten Commandments, that basically would cover the 613 laws. That was the spirit of what those laws were trying to accomplish. The Pharisees were so focused on getting every law right that they made it really complicated. If you zoom out even further, you have the greatest commandment, where Jesus says that all of the Law is summed up in this, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • 25:26 Let’s take that idea and apply it to this situation. We can get really zoomed in on the specific responsibilities, rules, and consequences, and from time to time, that may be necessary, but always go back to the purpose of it all. For us, we’ve got our family values. We’ve come up with 13 values, and they come out of our family mission statement, which is a quote from E. E. Cummings, “Love is the whole and more than all.” That can be up for interpretation, but for us, that means that we’re a family and we love each other. We can go from there.
  • 26:28 When you love somebody who’s in your family, you’re not going to do something that is going to make something more difficult for them. Not purposefully, not knowingly. It expands from that.

Your family’s main value needs to be the focal point for everything else you teach and do with your kids.

  • 26:54 When it comes to responsibility, that’s where you always need to point back to. Why should they be responsible in this area? Because, when you clean up after yourself, nobody else has to do it. Why does that matter? Everyone else has their own stuff to do, and for this family to run smoothly, we need to be doing our part. When someone else has to clean up your mess, they don’t have as much time to do their part, and things get more difficult. Why does that matter? You don’t want things to be more difficult for them, because we love each other. Maybe you’ll need their help at some time, and it will be easier for them to feel like helping you if you haven’t inconvenienced them constantly.
  • 27:46 You can always bring it back to the main value and say, “Here’s why we really do it—because we love each other.” I’m not going to make a mess in the kitchen and then say, “Hey, you need to come clean this up.” I’m not going to make a mess in my room and tell my oldest to come clean up the mess that I made. It’s not just because that’s not fair, although that is an aspect of it, but most of all, I love him and I wouldn’t want to do that to him. I know better. If your family values are the focal point, everything else will fall into place eventually. Sometimes, you have to zoom in, but every time, link it back to that main overarching value.

Take Responsibility for Your Own Choices

  • 29:11 Rachel: Jeremiah had said, “The tough thing, too, is the fact that when you have to limit your child, you also feel limited yourself because of the lack of the responsibility of the child.” That’s part of the frustration we have as parents. When we let our kids have responsibility, it frees us up to do other things. One time, Ben took three of the boys grocery shopping and left three of them at home. I was working, but it was safe to leave them home. He gave them specific instructions on how to act, and they did not follow those instructions. That either takes time away from my work time, or it saddles Ben with taking six of them to the grocery store, which is a nightmarish thing. That’s part of the frustration we have as parents, too.
  • 30:02 Ben: I definitely experience that. I’m going to throw out this idea, and I don’t think it’s a popular one. I’ve fought against this way of thinking before. I used to hate hearing anybody say anything resembling, “Well, you’re the one who chose to have so many kids.” I hate that coming from someone else. It helps me to remember that part of what comes along with having any number of children is that because they’re developing and they need to be taught how to do these things, they don’t come into the world capable of handling all this responsibility, that’s part of the package. That’s part of what I’m going to have to experience and deal with.
  • 31:20 Sometimes, I think back to what it was like before kids—being able to leave the house right away and stuff like that. If I think that I should be able to do that when I’ve also chosen to have children, then I’m not taking responsibility for that aspect of my life.
  • 31:41 Rachel: And you’ll be perpetually frustrated.
  • 31:48 Ben: That doesn’t make it easy. It’s no less hard, but I feel so much better taking responsibility and saying, “No, this is what I chose. Not only did I choose this, which is hard sometimes, but I also chose this, which is joyful, wonderful, and life-changing in other ways.” Those things far offset any of the hardship that I experience on a day to day basis. Don’t be the person who says that to me, but I don’t mind saying that to myself. I chose this. It’s a difficult thing to experience, but it’s part of the choice that I made.

Responsibility, Privilege, & Age

  • 32:40 This first question was from Jeremiah. He said, “When you have multiple children who are all close in age, how do you handle giving privileges to the child who shows signs of being ready for it when they may have an older sibling who is not quite there yet? How can you keep this from causing issues between parents and siblings?”
  • 33:00 Rachel: Yeah, we’ve been through that. Our second oldest is extremely responsible. The oldest now walks them all home from school because he’s technically the right age, but the second oldest is the one who really takes the reigns on that, even though he’s only seven.
  • 33:21 Ben: It helps to not think about responsibility in terms of age. Age can play a part. The longer someone’s alive, the more time they’ve had to develop, the more likely it is that they’re more ready for responsibilities than someone who’s younger. That’s definitely not always true. This is something we’re definitely guilty of—we have definitely given privileges out based on age. Definitely. The privilege of staying up later, of not having to come in as early as everyone else to take a bath… There’s kind of a double standard going on, where we’ve given away certain privileges just based on age, which really isn’t a meaningful marker for whether or not someone is ready for certain responsibilities.
  • 34:24 That’s why they have driver’s tests. At a certain age, you can get your learner’s permit and your license, but you have to take the test and pass it to see whether or not you’re actually ready. That question makes me aware of that double standard and makes me think that I need to stop giving away privileges simply based on age. Maybe that’s okay.
  • 35:11 Rachel: As kids get older, they don’t need quite as much sleep, so staying up later is valid for certain ages. I wouldn’t trust our nine year old home alone, though. I would wait until our second son is old enough to be home alone, and then we could leave kids home alone.

The more you know your kid, the easier it is to see what responsibilities they’re ready for, regardless of their age.

  • 35:44 Ben: The less you do privileges based on age, the easier it’s going to be for you to point to responsibility as the reason why someone has a privilege if one of the other kids complains.
  • 35:59 Rachel: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking to your kids about why a certain one has this certain privilege. If a kid shows over and over that he’s responsible enough to handle this privilege and he’s younger than someone else, open up that conversation. Say, “He has proved over and over that he’s capable of handling this responsibility, and that’s why he gets the privilege attached to it.”
  • 36:25 Ben: That’s a very healthy conversation, as opposed to, “I know you’re older than he is, so I guess you should get that privilege, too.”

Responsibility as Part of the Family

  • 36:38 Jeremiah asked another question, “Any tips on how to counsel children that the responsibilities of being part of the family are not optional?”
  • 36:48 Rachel: We’ve had that conversation before, too.
  • 36:54 Ben: I am very, very close to pulling the trigger on this thing that I’ve wanted to do. With after dinner chores, I want nobody to be able to go play outside until all of the after dinner chores are done. I want to promote the idea that we are all in this together. If I’m not responsible and I don’t do my job, we don’t have food to put on the table. I have a role to play in the family. There are things I need to do. I want everybody, eventually, to have that level of ownership and to feel like they’re part of this family. I don’t want to be unfair, but if someone has the dishes with Rachel and someone else has wiping off the table, those two jobs take a very different amount of time and work.
  • 38:02 I think, in that situation, it’s fair for the person who’s wiping off the table to say, “How can I help out so that we can all finish sooner and move on to the next thing?” But how do you do that? That was the question.
  • 38:22 Rachel: We’ve had this conversation over and over with our kids, about how we are a family unit and a team. When one person is lacking in their responsibility toward the family, the whole family suffers. Tough break, kid. You were born into this family.
  • 38:52 Ben: Sometimes, I will say, “I didn’t make that mess. I shouldn’t have to clean that up.” Part of it is being really careful. There are definitely legitimate situations where if I didn’t make that mess and you did, you need to be responsible and clean that up. There is also an aspect of demonstrating teamwork and the value of us all being part of the same family that lends itself to someone saying, “I didn’t help make this mess, but I’m going to help you clean it up.” There is a demonstration there of that value vs. just saying it and making them live into that, where you’re showing them what it looks like. Finding the balance there is a great place to start.

Seeing Your Children as Individuals

  • 39:55 Jeremiah said, “That makes me think of something else. As a parent of so many kids, it is really a task to make sure you look at the actions of each child separately. Otherwise, you could restrict the privileges of the older ones based on the actions of the younger ones.” I told him that happens to us on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. It’s really difficult, even for parents who have two to three kids, to keep track of the responsibility of their children at all times. Things are going to happen that are unfair. As parents, we’re in the role of having to make those tough calls. Sometimes, we’re going to be wrong and it’s going to be unfair. It’s going to be frustrating, but that’s also what happens in life.
  • 41:01 There are two things. One is that that’s a reflection of how life works, so it’s good for them to have that experience. There is a reality that they’re in circumstances they have no control over, like being in a large family. In real life, our kids are going to be in circumstances they don’t have any control over. The only thing you can control is how you’re going to respond in that situation. You can point to things being unfair as much as you want, but that’s not taking personal responsibility.
  • 41:36 For our kids, I hope that when they find themselves in that situation—and they will—that they’ll think to themselves, “If I take on as much responsibility as possible, I’ll make it easier for Mom and Dad not to have to worry about me. They can focus more of their resources on managing the other kids, and then I get the benefit of being a partner with them instead of being someone else they have to be concerned over.”
  • 42:12 Rachel: If only our kids would just understand that they would have a more quality relationship with us if they actually contributed. I think about how much time we spend teaching them about what not to do, and if they could master that, we would have such a great relationship with all kinds of fun things. We wouldn’t be spending so much time on discipline stuff. I’ve been thinking about that concept for a while, looking at all of your kids as one unit. In the craziness of life, it gets hard to separate them out to be individuals.

For the sake of connection with your kids, it helps to remember that they are individuals.

  • 43:03 Whenever the kids are losing their minds, which ours do a lot, it’s hard to look at even one of them and say, “I want to hang out with you.” It feels like all you’ve done is put out fires all day. I see this a lot with our twins. They don’t both always misbehave. It’s usually one or the other of them that’s having a really rough day. Because they’re a unit, it becomes a thing where we think that both of them are really hard today. I even say that in my language, but it’s really important to separate them out.
  • 43:43 Ben: Sometimes, you can’t do that in the moment. Sometimes, you have to retell the story afterwards and think back. In the middle of that craziness, I know it felt like all of them were screaming at the same time, but there was one sitting there quietly, reading his book, and not making any noise. I want to hang out with that one.

When Your Children Don’t Want Responsibility

  • 44:20 Eric asked, “To me, responsibility means that you let them take consequences and potential failure. One of my kids has fear of failure. Have you had this with any of your kids?” This gets into an interesting conversation, where it’s not necessarily that they’re not responsible enough to take on certain privileges, but maybe they’re afraid that they’ll make a mistake and mess up, so they don’t take responsibility. They allow you to continue doing something for them, and they’re willing to sacrifice the potential freedom or privilege they might get from something because they don’t want to mess up.
  • 45:06 Rachel: Or, sometimes, they just don’t want to do something that’s hard. Our oldest didn’t tie his tennis shoes until he was in second grade because it was too tedious. Our second son didn’t want to even try. Our first son is very gifted and intelligent, and I think the second son feels a little bit of a shadow from that even though he’s gifted in his own way. A lot of times, he doesn’t even want to try, because he has this big brother who has succeeded in everything. We have to be careful. When he finally decided to try to tie his shoes, he taught himself. One of our mantras in our house is, “We can do hard things,” and I think that helps every now and then.
  • 46:05 Ben: It’s good to reinforce those ideas. It might be good to do some investigation into why they don’t want to take on certain responsibilities. If your child won’t take responsibility because they’re afraid they’re going to make a mistake, dig a little deeper. Ask, “If you did mess up, what would that mean? What would that look like? What are you afraid is going to happen if you make a mistake?” Try to uncover the root of what’s really going on there. A lot of times, that goes back to their sense of worth and identity. If they mess up, that means that they’re not as worthy of love, someone’s going to be angry with them, or they won’t be as well taken care of and they won’t be as secure.
  • 46:57 Whereas, it might just be something that they think is hard and frustrating. In that case, I like saying, “You can do hard things.” I would like to say more, “It’s good for you to do things that feel hard and frustrating, because that builds resilience and grit, and you need that to deal with life on a day to day basis.”

It’s not just that your children can do hard things, but they can handle the frustration and discomfort of doing those things.

  • 47:37 You’ve got to know when to push them into that and when to let them be. Ultimately, they have to be the ones to make the choice to do the hard thing, even though it’s frustrating.
  • 47:50 Rachel: If our kids are afraid of mistakes, it’s also valuable to have a conversation with them about mistakes that you’ve made. We do that around the dinner table. The year our son was having a really hard year in school, he would come home and be very upset about things that were going on. I would tell stories about my brother, his uncle, who also had a troubled elementary career for a while. I would tell stories about me. Just the other day, Ben was talking to them about a mistake that he made, and we talk about those things in a way that shows them that we learn from those things and that we can do better next time. It’s not the end of the world that we made those mistakes, but we can recover and move into a place of greater wisdom.