We often confuse responsibility and obedience, but they’re not the same thing:

  • Obedience is externally driven and is based on following the rules and doing as you’re told – no matter what.
  • Responsibility is internally driven and is based on effective action and caring – i.e., satisfying your own needs while helping others to satisfy theirs.

How we teach

Here are the three tools parents most commonly use to teach teens responsibility:

  • lecturing (includes nagging, criticizing, “correcting,” advising, reminding),
  • punishing (trying to make them feel bad so they’ll behave well), or
  • rescuing (not allowing teens to experience the reasonable consequences of their actions).

But these aren’t effective, because that’s not the way teens learn life lessons.

How we learn

When the Admiral of the Canadian Navy was asked to comment on the sinking of a submarine, he replied, “Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.”

We learn from experiencing the results of our actions – also known as consequences. We do something and experience an outcome. A satisfactory outcome lets us know our actions were effective; an unwanted outcome lets us know our actions were less effective.

We do not learn from dire warnings. How can you understand “hot stove” without experiencing hot?!

“Consequence” is not synonymous with “punishment.” A consequence isn’t good or bad; it’s just an outcome.

There are two types of consequences:

  • Natural consequences occur without the involvement of anyone else (e.g., if you drive under the influence, you may end up in a ditch – or worse).
  • Logical consequences involve another person (e.g., if you’re pulled over for impaired driving, your licence will be suspended).

This process fails to work, though, when parents interfere with it and attempt to replace consequences with lecturing, punishing and rescuing. This really muddies the waters, because the teen is denied the opportunity to experience the actual outcome of his behaviour and learn from it.

How you can teach better

So how can you teach your teens responsibility?

  • Allow them to be accountable for what they do. Let them experience the consequences of their actions. This means not rescuing or interfering – no matter how uncomfortable it is for you.
  • Ask questions that encourage them to figure out (a) what they want, (b) what they’re doing to get it, (c) whether what they’re doing is working, and, if not, (c) what they could do differently.
  • Support and encourage them. Let them know you believe they have what it takes to work through their difficulties, learn from their mistakes, and create the life they want.
  • Most importantly, be responsible and model responsible behaviour. And that involves a whole lot more than going to work every morning, cleaning the house and paying your bills on time! It also involves being kind and helping others.

Can you see yourself through your teen’s eyes? Does he see someone who’s self-assured, confident, ready to take on the world, happy and fulfilled?

Or does she see someone who’s angry, depressed, resentful, overwhelmed, unhappy and dissatisfied? If so, how eager do you think she is to grow up to be just like you?

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

—Mahatma Gandhi

So focus on you – and be the adult you want your teen to become!

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