Last but not Least Teaching Kids to Take Ownership, One Lesson at a Time

I’m now a dad to a teenage daughter and a son who just turned 11. Far from being a helicopter parent, I’ve tried to instill in my kids a bias toward self-sufficiency. Not exactly the throw-‘em-in-the-deep-end teachable moments that may serve as harsh reminders of youth for some, but appropriate levels of learning and, hopefully, growing.
So it was with a certain level of frustration that, when picking up my daughter from a recent piano lesson at which she spent the time doing last-minute cramming with her teacher for the next day’s Level 4 music theory test, I asked her where she needed to be for the test and at what time.
“I don’t know,” she replied, looking at my blankly.
“Go find out,” I said. “It’s time you start to take more ownership of your schedule.”
Too harsh? Having some awareness of her schedule seems like an age-appropriate expectation, but that’s coming from a guy whose corporate gig involves a series of Outlook-orchestrated meetings and conference calls and touch bases, tightly synchronized in 30- to 60-minute blocks of time.
As a parent, I find this a tough balance to strike — caring for and teaching my children while also tapping their capacity for personal responsibility and independence. When is it OK to let them walk a mile with a friend to Starbucks, or do their own laundry? And if their gym uniform hasn’t been washed as of the night before, do I pitch in and help?
This promises to only get harder as outside forces—peer pressure, technology, media, puberty—converge in a maelstrom of new responsibilities and emotions and expectations.
My 11-year-old son is a whole different test case. He’s the type of kid who, after years of waiting to have his own iPod Touch, will reset the password, almost immediately forget it and get locked out of the device—but he’ll remember my passwords to Netflix, Amazon, our Xbox One and probably a few platforms I don’t know about.
I know I need to go slower, take smaller steps with him. But he’s learning uncomfortable lessons.
He participated in an indoor baseball clinic during the winter and discovered as he arrived at the second workout that he didn’t have his glove in his bag. I’d warned him I was through conducting an inventory of his equipment before practices and games; he needed to be responsible for having the correct gear. He hacked a solution by discreetly borrowing a friend’s glove, which was an uncomfortable fit and a less-than-ideal implement for catching a groundball.
Child development experts say that teaching kids how to take ownership of aspects of their lives helps them build confidence as they learn to do things for themselves. Training them in small doses will better prepare them for the time when they’ll expect certain freedoms. And they’ll learn to take pride in taking action, rather than sitting back passively.
We also read a lot about “grit” nowadays. Defined by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth as a child’s “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” it’s considered a better indicator of happiness and professional success than IQ or talent. And what is one way to teach grit? By enhancing that capacity for personal responsibility—and living through and learning from failure.
It’s still hard, though, to act as the adviser in my children’s lives, not the director. But I want to raise children who will grow into empathetic adults, ready to contribute to the well-being of people other than themselves. To that end, I’m trying to gradually increase their responsibilities.
The morning of my daughter’s big theory test, however, I reverted to directorial mode. She ambled out to the car in her typically understated manner — not quite nonchalant, but if she was nervous she wasn’t showing it. She quickly made me nervous, however, upon my discovery that she had just one pencil with her.
“Are you only bringing one pencil for the test?”
“Yes. Why?”
“What if something happens? What if your pencil breaks?”
“This pencil is unbreakable.”
“What? Go back inside and get a backup pencil. You can’t take just one pencil to a big test like this.”
Exasperated sigh. Eye roll. Door slam. Back into the car with a backup pencil.
An hour later, she met me in the school gym, the test finished.
“How’d you do?”
“Good, I think. Oh, and guess what? I dropped my pencil at the beginning of the test — and it broke.”
“Oh really?” I said. Yes, I’d missed out on a teachable moment, a grit-building opportunity. But like I said, I’m trying to dole out these lessons a little at a time, not all at once. So I basked just a bit in my vindication while my daughter said something that was music to my ears:
“You were right, Dad. You were right.” BC

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