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How America Messed Up Its Kids... And How We Can Fix Them

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In today's world of blame and finger-pointing, we're teaching our kids that accountability and responsibility are slippery slopes that don't mean what they used to. For example, have you witnessed a parent-teen conversation that went anything like this:

Teenager: "Please, Mom and Dad, just let me do this, and I promise that I will take full responsibility for it."

Parent: "Do you realize that taking full responsibility means that if it backfires and goes wrong, you will own up to it, pay back whatever it takes to make up for it going wrong and learn from it so that it doesn't happen again?"

Teenager: "I didn't agree to that."

Parent: "Well, then what do you think taking full responsibility means?"

Teenager: "That if it goes wrong, I will say, 'I'm sorry.'"

If you have witnessed such a conversation, do you agree with the following?

Among our main roles and responsibility as parents is to teach, coach, guide and pass on to our children the character (and I do mean character) traits of self-reliance, resourcefulness, initiative, taking responsibility for one's actions and learning from one's mistakes (see "How to Raise a Self-Confident Child").

If at age 18 they are lacking these, they are going to find success, happiness and life in general a challenge and even overwhelming.

To bring it into sharper focus, consider that at the exact moment that you as a parent bail out your child from facing the consequences of their screw-ups and taking full responsibility for them, literally millions of children in this world the same age as your child are taking full responsibility for their actions and becoming smarter, stronger and wiser. Within the next 10 to 20 years, those children (from China, India and elsewhere) will become your child's boss, and they won't bail out or accept your child's excuses. Instead, they will fire your children.

How Did America Mess Up Its Kids?

One explanation might be what preceding generations had to endure and what they wanted for their children.

For instance, Americans born between 1900 and 1924, referred to as the G.I. Generation, were born to parents who endured coming to the United States, then heard and watched how the countries that they came from became embroiled in World War I, then enlisted to fight in the Great War and then lived through the Great Depression. It's understandable how these parents who lived through such difficult times would want their children to have it better. Having it better was about having a life where they didn't need to fear for their lives or livelihoods. It wasn't about sexual freedom or accumulating disposable income to conspicuously consume with.

The G.I. Generation grew up during the Great Depression, went to fight in World War II and then gave birth to the Baby Boomer Generation, born between 1946 and 1964. It's understandable that wanting their Baby Boomer children to have it better, especially during the prosperity and relatively peaceful years in the 1950s, would go beyond mere economic survival. Instead, it crossed over into giving their children more of what they had less of, from more sexual freedom to more drugs to more rock and roll to hot cars and especially more mobility as Baby Boomers left home to settle down across the country.

Next, early Baby Boomers gave birth to Generation X, and later Baby Boomers gave birth to Generation Y/Millennials. Although Baby Boomers experienced much more freedom than their parents, as a generation they still largely took responsibility for their actions and did not expect to be bailed out. Baby Boomers may have been tolerated and moderately indulged by their parents, but they didn't take it to the level of entitlement. That required another generational turn.

As the G.I. Generation gave their Baby Boomer children more freedom from oppression and repression, the Baby Boomers have given their Generation Y/Millennials freedom from responsibility and accountability for their actions. They have moved past indulging them directly to spoiling them. And rather than letting their children face the consequences of their actions, Baby Boomers have more often bailed out their Gen Y/Millennial children. And when children feel no responsibility or accountability for their actions, the next step is for them to feel and act entitled -- entitled to act according to how they feel and to what will immediately gratify them, and entitled to not do whatever they don't want to do. It is this attitude that would give rise to the Parent-Teenager dialogue that opened this blog.

What We Can and Need to Do About It

An initial step that might be helpful is to reach a consensus between parents and their children as to what terms related to personal responsibility mean. Here are ten terms that come to mind for me:

  1. Commitment: the level of dedicated action(s) you continue to take after your enthusiasm for an enterprise stops.
  2. Accountability: taking full responsibility for your actions by owning up to the negative or failed results, taking action to make up for it to the person(s) you let down, and learning what you did wrong so that it doesn't occur again.
  3. Maturity: how well you are able to resist an irresistible impulse and instead have and exercise judgment and do the reasonable thing. In the brain we refer to this as exercising one's executive function.
  4. Honesty: this is simply telling the truth according to the facts as you understand them. You know honesty best, when you tell a lie. Pathological liars lie whenever they are trying to get their way and take advantage of a situation. Compulsive liars lie both when the are trying to get their way and when they are trying to get out of facing the consequences of their actions.
  5. Forthrightness: this is coming forward and telling the truth and revealing untruths that you become aware of. It's believing and following Justice Louis Brandeis words: "Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant."
  6. Character: what you do when you are frustrated, angry, annoyed, afraid and/or bored and nobody is watching and your chance of getting caught is close to nil.
  7. Sacrifice: what you do unto others who will not (immediately) be able to pay you back by doing unto you.
  8. Compassion: what you feel unto others who will not be able to do more than say, "Thank you."
  9. Thinking ahead and planning: overcoming the aversion to anything that causes you to forego immediate gratification.
  10. Listening: and then pausing to consider what you've heard before rejecting it, tuning out or competing with it (a skill every generation needs to learn).

What additions or corrections would you make to this list? What terms come to your mind regarding personal responsibility and being accountable and what would be your definitions?

Next step...

As soon as it's possible, parents, teachers and children need to begin having an ongoing discussion of these terms at the beginning of every school year from the third grade forward. That is because these concepts will take on different meanings as children grow. Include as much interactive and experiential exercises as possible. And finally, make a central part of those discussions: a) why children should care about these ideas and values (one reason being that if they don't, they will be unhirable at age 22 when they finish college); and b) how to implement these values into curriculums and schoolwork.

Here is the challenge: People don't do what's important, they do what they care about. Something that might get in the way of parents "caring" about teaching and guiding their children to have and live the above values is that too often parents live vicariously through their children (i.e. know any screaming parents at their kid's soccer games?).

It's also possible that many parents want to indulge their children because those parents resented the deprivation they experienced and that they don't unconsciously want their children to resent them. To counter this, parents need to go from resenting the hardships they had (and acting out on them by spoiling their children) to appreciating how that adversity helped them develop such positive traits as tenacity, perseverance, resilience, resourcefulness and perspective.

Children will only take personal responsibility and be accountable for their actions when parents care enough and see the value in saying "no" when appropriate instead of "yes" and then sticking to it.

It's also helpful for parents to keep in mind the advice I provide managers and leaders: "If you sacrifice being respected for being liked, you won't be either."

[NOTE: Added after 725th comment. I love opinions and spirited informed debate, especially that leads to solutions to important issues such as this one. I'm not that crazy about opinionated people, because given the "monkey see, monkey do" rule, they often beget some of the most stubborn, ignorant blaming children. So in the interest of helping prevent you from begetting such a child (and making your family life miserable), I invite you to check out: "Know Any Narcissists?" and give it to the people you care about and see how they see you. It's never too late to stop being too self-centered and raising children to be the same.]

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