When Children Take Responsibility
Power, responsibility, participation, respect, democracy are all difficult concepts to deal with in practice. Who takes responsibility for what happens in a family? How much should children be part of the decision making process?
When I was a child I used to say: "I really want..." This was often met with: "You want and you want... Your will is in my pocket!" This was a clear expression of the authoritarian style of up-bringing most of us went through. Much has changed since and now therapists and psychologists are seeing more and more parents who simply have given up. The children seem to have taken over. Parents even talk about babies as if they are in charge. Although many parents talk about it does not mean that it is in fact so. Children are not power hungry.
Let us take a look at power and responsibility within the family. Responsibility
The responsibility for the family unequivocally belongs to the parents'. Parents are fully responsible for the atmosphere - the way everyone speaks to each other, conflicts are resolved, decisions are made, and the way everyone gets on. Children have no experience to draw on and know nothing about that. When this responsibility is left with the children things go wrong. It does not imply that they are unable to observe what goes on and have ideas - in fact, they often do - but they are not able to take responsibility for what is most suitable for them and the family. Power
The power lies with the adults. Not only the obvious power such as when buying property, deciding on child care, the family car, and so forth. They also hold the power over which decisions the children can be part of making.
Responsibility is about the process whereas power is about the content. Power is about what is being decided and responsibility is about how those decisions are made. The ultimate quality of the decisions depends on the quality of the way they are made. This means that the family's well-being depends on this process and not on the content - contrary to what most people think.
It is irrelevant how many hours of television the children are allowed to watch, how many ice creams they eat, what time they have to be home at night, whether or not they do their homework, etc. What matters is how these decisions are made and how they are implemented.
Many parents make their children responsible by trying to control their every move. This almost always fails. The children become really good at cheating and "they never do anything by themselves - we have to tell them everything a thousand times!" most parents say. The reason for this is very simple: the process and the content are contradicting each other. What parents are really saying is: "I want you to become responsibility for your own actions, therefore I will control everything you do." This obviously does not make sense and ultimately both parties end up highly perplexed. Children with too much responsibility
In many of today's families the children hold most of the power. To a great extend the children decide what the family can and cannot do, when they do it and where it is done. The atmosphere is dominated by a never ending power struggle between the children and their parents. Everyone is unhappy. An example
Dylan does not want to go to school. He is 11 years old and lives with his mother and six year old younger brother. She separated soon after the youngest was born. Her husband drank and was violent against both her and the children. She has worked hard to be able to stay on top of things. She attended vocational training and is now able to look after her family. The mother comes from a family without conflicts - or rather, they were hushed and swept under the carpet. She is much younger than her siblings and she acknowledges that she has always been "wrapped in pink cotton".
During the past four years Dylan has become increasingly difficult. He is mean to his younger brother and hardly ever does what his mother asks of him. If she tries to decide over him he will throw a tantrum and destroy things. They stay at home most of the time because Dylan does not want to go out. He has not liked any of his mother's partners. On top of this, he has refused to go to school for the past six months. No one is able to make him explain why! Prior to this he was happy at school and did well.
Initially it seems like Dylan has taken charge of this family. However, reality is that his mother has never been able to take responsibility. She was married to a man who held all the power but called it responsibility. When she tried to take responsibility for bringing up the children he used his power to tell her off. She has always tried to avoid conflicts as she has never learnt how to handle them. At the same time she thought her husband was too tough and rough, and wanted to approach things in a softer manner - give the children more space.
When she and the children were invited to her sister's place she would ask Dylan: "Would you like to visit your aunty?" When Dylan said No! she would reply: "That's a pity. Never mind, what would you like to do instead?" "No!" as a symptom
When Dylan was younger he used to co-operated. As time passed he said No! to more and more things and lately has says No! to just about anything his mother suggests. The many times he said No! accumulated and ultimately became one loud NO! A absolute NO! to school. This was called a school phobia but as with most cases of school phobia it had nothing to do with school. Dylan refused to go to school for many reasons. Two of the most important were:
Firstly, his mother found school very important. Every day she helped him with his homework and they spoke about his school day. She made it clear to him how important she thought it was to do well. In this regard Dylan reacted like so many other children do: he developed symptoms in an area where he was certain to get his mother's attention.
Secondly, he carried a lot of responsibility - like so many first-born children do. They often feel responsible for their mother's or father's well-being. They carry a heavier burden than most parents are aware of. Add to this the fact that his mother, unknowingly and unintentionally, made him responsible for many of the decisions relating to the family. She was young and weak with her husband, and although she is both older and more independent she still leaves many decisions to the "man in the house".
It might seem like the mother's way of raising Dylan is in fact democratic, accommodating and flexible - an upbringing which sounds admirable. However, Dylan has ended up with greater responsibility than he can shoulder. His school phobia is an expression which says: "I am responsible for my mother. This is such a huge burden that I cannot go to school as well."
The question is: "Why does Dylan say No! all the time?" It sounds like he lives in the land of milk and honey. He can get things the way he wants them - he has the power. What Dylan really wants is a mother who dares take responsibility and make a stand so he has something he can relate to. This does not mean he craves a dictator who decides everything. All he needs is a mother who can look after herself and her family in such a way that he is able to be the child he really is. However, just like any other child Dylan does not have the vocabulary to go to his mother and say: "Listen, it is all very well that you a willing to listen to me and that you take the time to do it... but I am not old or experienced enough to decide. Feel free to ask me what I think... but you have to take responsibility for the decisions. If that is too hard for you then find another adult who can help you. I am just a child!"
Dylan is not able to say No! to the process. All he can do is say No! to the content. If his mother cannot hear this No! and if she is not able to understand what it really means then his only option is to scream it out louder and louder. Hopefully, she will get it - sooner rather than later.
Dylan's situation is really serious. Often children like him become highly destructive. They become "terrorists" at home or at school. Or they internalise their frustrations and become self-destructive. Their parents are often advised to define and implement limits. On the face of it this might sound plausible but it hardly ever works. This is because it deals with the family's power struggle. The real conflict is not about power but about responsibility and the result is therefore that the power struggles intensify.
Of course parents need to set limits where they have been missing. But first the parents need to take responsibility - and perhaps they need help learning how to do that. Otherwise, the children will also have to take responsibility for staying within the limits. This becomes a vicious circle.
By Jesper Juul (English adaptation by Hayes van der Meer, FamilyLab ANZ) Raising Competent Children: A new way of developing relationships with Children
International parenting authority Jesper Juul believes that today's families are at an exciting crossroad. The traditional authoritarian parenting style based on obedience and conformity that governs families is being transformed. In his internationally best-selling book Raising Competent Children (released in Australia in July), Jesper shows readers how to embrace a new set of values, based on the assumption that families must instead be built on dignity and reciprocity between the parent and child. Jesper believes that children are competent to express their feelings from birth, and are eager to co-operate as well as assume responsibility for their personal and social behaviour. Jesper says that as parents we must work on listening to and learning from our children. Raising Competent Children challenges parents to see the years with their children as an exciting time of growth and development for the whole family. Filled with examples from everyday life, this is a must-read for all parents and parents to be. Jesper Juul
is a family therapist and the founder of FamilyLab International. He is a renowned author and sought-after international speaker. Jesper Juul's international best-seller and must-have book for parents and educators is now available in an Australian/New Zealand edition: "Raising competent children".
For more information about Jesper Juul and FamilyLab please visit www.familylab.com.au
Raising Competent Children: A new way of developing relationships with Children
Rockpool Publishing www.rockpoolpublishing.com.au
Author: Jesper Juul
Price: $24.95Buy it now at