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Children and Responsibility: Teaching Kids the Importance of Following Through

10/26/2010 08:39 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Popular culture conveys to children very unhealthy messages about responsibility. Through its focus on the pampered lifestyles of the rich and famous and advertising that suggests that life should always be a party, popular culture communicates to children that if it's not fun, easy, or interesting, they shouldn't have to do it. If children get tired, bored, or uncomfortable, they shouldn't even try. The messages of rebellion in pop and hip-hop music, the sense of entitlement shown by professional athletes, and the disdain spoiled movie stars express toward what most people would see as normal responsibilities tells children that being responsible is just not cool.

Yet, as children are going to learn sooner or later, the real world of adulthood just doesn't work that way for us regular folk. To prepare your children for that real world, one of the great lessons they need to learn is that sometimes they just have to suck it up!

Part of being a responsible adult is accepting that there are a lot of things in life that we don't care to do but must do anyway because we have to, because it's our job. How often do you do things for your children that you would really rather not do? I'll bet you just love taking your children to their music lesson at the end of a long day or to a soccer tournament 200 miles from home on a weekend. Of course you don't, but you suck it up and do it because that's part of the job of being a parent. Your children need to learn that they too have a job to do and that life, now and in adulthood, often involves doing things that they don't want to do. So, instead of complaining, whining, and stalling, they should just be quiet and do the job.

To illustrate my point, let me offer you an example of a conversation that I have had with many students in the past. Though it may not convince them right away to suck it up, they always admit that it makes sense:

Me: So you hate math [or some other school subject]?
Student: Definitely! [said with almost physical pain]
Me: Can you get out of math?
Student: No, I have to take it. [said with a grimace and an eye roll]
Me: But because you don't like it, you don't give much effort.
Student: Sure, why should I?
Me: What kind of grade would you get?
Student: Probably a D or F.
Me: How would that make you feel?
Student: Pretty bad.
Me: And how would your parents feel about an F?
Student: They would definitely not like it!
Me: Would an F help or hurt your chances of getting into a good college?
Student: It would definitely hurt.
Me: What would happen if you just decided to suck it up, hate every minute of it, but do the best you can in the class anyway? What kind of grade would you get?
Student: An A or B.
Me: How would that make you feel?
Student: Really good.
Me: How would your parents feel about that?
Student: Duh -- they would love it and they'd get off my back.
Me: I'll bet you'd like that. Would that good grade help you achieve some other goal like getting into a good college?
Student: Yeah.
Me: What life lessons do you think you might learn from this experience?
Student: Well, like sometimes you just have to suck it up!
Me: Very funny. Any other life lessons?
Student: Hard work, persistence, patience.
Me: Another thing I've found is that many young people have a surprising thing happen while they're sucking it up in that class that they hate. They actually come to enjoy it. Has that ever happened to you?
Student: Yeah. [with a glint of self-realization]
Me: So do you think that just sucking it up is a pretty good thing to do over all?
Student: Yeah. [said begrudgingly, knowing I'm right]
Me: Next time you're faced with a situation you don't like but can't get out of, think about our conversation and perhaps choose to suck it up.

Getting your children to suck it up is easier said than done. Start with a conversation. Introduce the idea to them so they understand it. Some parents don't like to use the word "suck" because it has other, less positive connotations (e.g., "That sucks"). If you feel uncomfortable with it, substitute "tough it out," but I've found that most children know the difference and "suck it up" resonates more with them.

Your children can easily generate examples of having to do things they would rather not do (e.g., school, household chores). Have the same conversation with your children that I had above. Then, when "suck it up" situations arise in the future, remind them of the conversation and ask them what they should do. Your children won't immediately buy into the concept, but over time, as they see its benefits, they will likely start to suck it up on their own.

In teaching your children to suck it up, you better prepare them for the adult world. They learn that responsibility is a powerful and rewarding value. They also learn to be skeptical of messages from popular culture telling them that life should always be easy and that "stepping up to the plate" is for losers. Your children learn that life isn't always fun and games, and when they choose to be responsible, suck it up, and do the best they can, good things usually happen.