We have Rights AND Responsibilities

Two totally unrelated news stories set me off on a tangent this week.

One of them involved the eight babies born last month to California single mother Nadya Suleman. The octuplets join her existing six children, bringing her total offspring to fourteen. 

Unemployed and living with her mother and father, she understandably has been subjected to a significant and largely unfavourable public outcry.

Yet for her it is simple. Yes she admits, she has made unconventional choices in how she’s chosen to bring children into the world, but as she put it in a recent interview, “Being a mom is all I’ve ever wanted.”

While she does admit it’s a response to her upbringing as an only child in a dysfunctional family and a resulting deep need to connect, she also said, “I will be able to support them once I’m done my schooling”. She plans to continue school in the fall to complete her masters degree in counseling.

Contrast that with another, somewhat less prominent, story this week reporting a growing trend showing more school children are taking the initiative to support charitable causes.

In the examples cited in the article, teachers and parents have encouraged students to see beyond their own homes and classrooms to support a spirit of giving to others.

This is translating into birthday parties where kids pick a cause to support instead of receiving gifts. Guests are asked for money for a favourite charity or for items the charity can use such as food, cleaning supplies, or office items.

One little guy, a passionate animal lover, asked for donations of pet food that were then donated to a local animal shelter. One local foodbank even offers tours for the kids, and a local Humane Society will soon be offering onsite birthday parties!

These two stories are what led me to thinking about rights and responsibilities and what a colleague told me a number of years ago about an issue he was seeing.

He told me that while our generation of baby boomers has done a fabulous job of raising a generation who understand they have rights, we haven’t done as good a job teaching them that with those rights come responsibilities.

Single mother Nadya certainly does seem to understand that she has the rights to have as many children as she likes - married or not.

On the other hand, she doesn’t seem to have as good a grip on the fact that with those rights come responsibilities. In this case the right to have 14 children surely must be tied to making sure you are also responsible and able to put a roof over their heads, diapers on their backsides, and food on their table.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve failed Nadya by not instilling the sense of responsibility that might have better prepared her for adult life.

The second story is an example of the kind of character training we might just want to do more of in order to encourage and support our children so they are less inclined to make the kind of irresponsible decisions Nadya seems to be making with such a sense of self righteousness and entitlement.

Responsibility is one of the most important elements of good character. All of us can lay a foundation that will encourage responsibility by reflecting a belief that everyone should contribute to the well-being of all, regardless of their age or level of ability.

We can build a ramp to responsibility by helping our kids gradually take on more.

In the case of the birthday party scenarios, even young children can be empowered by making the decision about the particular cause or charity they want to support.

By engaging and empowering children at a young age, we are preparing them for lives as active and responsible citizens. As they get older, we can do more by modeling and encouraging volunteering and giving back to our communities.
Ultimately it may be that the answer to the question “How do we ensure young people grow up to be more responsible?” isn’t all that complex. It might however require a change in how we as adults deal with them. While we need to continue to embed young peoples’ right to be heard and listened to in matters that affect them, we also need to involve them in opportunities to shape and influence the responsibilities that come with those decisions.
Rights and responsibilities are inextricably linked. Happy and responsible adults need both.

Posted on 02-08-09

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