Being Responsible vs. Being in Charge

by Jessica Martin-Weber


Children need the opportunity to fail in their responsibilities, experience accountability, admit their mistakes, identify what went wrong, and be supported in trying again. But if parents never let their children experience failure in their responsibilities, if parents always swoop in to prevent failure, are their children ever actually responsible?

Responsibilities: yours, mine, and ours.

In a private coaching session, a client shared their struggle with family responsibilities and what that looked like in their home. As we discussed options and strategies, it came out that they were worried about their child’s education because their high schooler was blowing off their virtual schooling assignments. The parent stressed that they were failing their responsibility to their child of making sure they receive an education. It felt impossible though, working, juggling virtual schooling for 3 other children, health issues, and a host of other challenging realities.

Where does the parent’s responsibility end and the child’s begin?

It isn’t clear cut as maturity and development is an ongoing process (in truth you don’t have quite the same child today as you did yesterday for this reason and once you figure something out, it is going to change again) but it can help to keep in mind that as parents oftentimes our responsibility is to provide opportunity.

Ellyn Satter calls it the division of responsibility in feeding. The parental responsibility is to provide balanced food options and the time to eat for young children. It is the child’s responsibility to decide what and how much, of what is offered, to eat. There is a trust relationship involved.

This extends beyond feeding and into most other areas of life as our children grow. At some point our children need to be responsible for their sleep, their hygiene, their health, their work, their free time, and so on. This is the path to fully functioning adulthood. By the time they are in their teens the bulk of the responsibility is on them and our responsibility as parents is to provide opportunity and support. That includes support for when they screw up and drop the ball with their responsibilities.

When we overstep our responsibilities to attempt to control them in their responsibilities, it grows resentment. On both sides. It infantilizes our children, undermines their confidence, and burns us all out.

Fearing failure so we avoid opportunity limits growth.

The reality is sometimes our responsibility is to let them fail. Failing isn’t the worst thing, it is, as any inventor will tell you, a part of the process of finding what works. Failure is a powerful, if painful teaching tool. We can at least fail forward as we grow.

And so can our kids. They need to and we need to let them.

Walking with our children through failure, not rescuing them from it but actually supporting them through it equips them to be responsible with failure and deepens our relationship with them. They have their responsibilities and we have ours.

Our client needed to hear that they aren’t responsible for their child’s school performance but they are responsible to provide them opportunity and accountability in getting an education. To seek further supports if necessary. To not enable avoiding responsibility. And to be there for their child when they fail and help them figure out what’s next. Not to do it for them. They needed to set boundaries and have a plan for accountability but they didn’t need to rescue their child from responsibility.


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Originally published in a Facebook post on the We’re All Human Here page. Join the private We’re All Human Here Community Group on Facebook.


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