These illustrations suggest a grave lack of responsibility for one's actions among many young people. Kids too often toss responsible behavior out the window when impulses convince them to take a riskier course. Consider this example: large numbers of young people engage in sexual activity without weighing the ramifications. Though they have the choice to abstain from sex and to take adequate measures to guard against pregnancy or disease, many abdicate that responsibility. Later they blame their pregnancy or infection on their partner, on ignorance, or on their own inability to say no to sex.
When we choose to place blame, and to see ourselves as helpless victims when we actually have empowering choices, we ignore our responsibility to act in a manner that doesn't harm or destroy.
We regularly miss opportunities to teach children to take responsibility for their behaviors. Thousands of young people commit crimes while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Violations range from driving under the influence to property damage to accidents to assault and murder. Too often courts end up letting those kids off the hook for the same kinds of reasons parents regularly let their children off the hook for less serious behaviors.
Whether infractions are serious or minor, we can neglect to give kids empowering discipline because we disregard the power of pain as a teacher. We believe that telling children what they did wrong and why they shouldn't do it again will be enough. We think that if we're just reasonable and loving enough, they'll listen and change their ways and won't need the discomfort of consequences. We don't want them to hurt, and we long to give them another chance, a fresh start. We may fear alienating them with discipline that costs them comfort.
Unfortunately, too often the lesson kids learn from leniency is that they can misbehave and nothing will happen. Many children will never understand the grace of a true fresh start until they grapple with consequences that build personal responsibility. Adversity's consequences are not antithetical to grace.
Therein lies the real problem. If we expect our kids to be responsible for their actions, then we must be responsible for ours too.
Taking responsibility for our actions is the first step to healing and forgiveness. When we stop trying to cover our mistakes by blaming, we open our innermost parts to God's transforming work. When we `fess up and admit, "I did it," or "that's my problem, and I am truly sorry," we begin to bring change and success into the midst of the mess.
Clearly, taking responsibility is an important lesson for children to learn. So how do we teach it? Where can we start?
Unless we hold them accountable for what they do, children will not assume full ownership of their actions. Those of us who have tried to avoid necessary conflict with children may be inclined to sweep a child's negative behavior under the rug, when instead we should call attention to it and offer appropriate consequences.
We may ask, Aren't we called to love kids unconditionally? Yes, we are. That's why we hold children accountable. Disciplining the young people in our care, children with whom we have built relationships, is one of the most loving acts we can do for them. How much better for them to learn responsibility early on (and alongside adults who care about them) than later, when stakes may be higher and others involved may be indifferent or hostile. When we discipline kids wisely, we are offering them love like that which God offers us. Proverbs 3:12 explains: "The Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in."
Discipline helps young people understand the consequences of foolish actions and tells the child that he or she alone is responsible for that outcome. What a gift! When discipline is repeated and consistent in the context of a well-maintained, love-based relationship, even a recalcitrant child can learn to take responsibility for his or her actions. Once the child's conscience-rather than parents, teachers, or law enforcement officers-begins to direct that ownership, the child has strengthened her inner locus of control.
Practically speaking, the discipline that develops responsibility takes many forms, which depend on the adult's role in the child's life; the child's age; the child's and adult's temperaments, traditions, and histories. We may remove privileges, require financial compensation or public apology, issue time-outs, or apply any of a myriad of other disciplinary measures. Sometimes we simply need to step out of the way and allow natural consequences.
Whatever the means of discipline, we must commit to it. If Jake and Andre wrestle in the living room (against house rules) and break the fish tank, we can have them clean up the mess and then pay to replace the tank and the fish. If eighth-grade Beth lies to a teacher about her whereabouts, that teacher can respond by restricting her freedom until she earns the teacher's trust back. If Jennifer overspends early in the month, her parents can refuse to bail her out by giving or loaning her money. The pain that her mismanagement causes can bless her future financial decision-making, if we don't interfere. Disciplining kids in any of these scenarios will cost us time and energy, but we mustn't abandon our efforts.
Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of Hebrews 12, writes, "God is educating you; that's why you must never drop out. He's treating you as dear children. This trouble you're in isn't punishment; it's training, the normal experience of children. Only irresponsible parents leave children to fend for themselves. Would you prefer an irresponsible God?"