What Exactly IS A “Responsible” Parent?

People throw that word around a lot, don’t they? It’s a big word, a heavy word, and a loaded word. But what does it really mean?

It’s worth it to stop and consider this question because unless we have a clear and simple definition for it, how do we know whether our actions make the cut in any given situation? How do we know whether we are being responsible or irresponsible? And, how can we possibly teach our children what it means and how to act accordingly?

Whenever I work with families, this word comes up right away. That’s not too surprising since it is at the very core of how we are expected to act when it comes to our children. But when I ask moms and dads to try and define it in one sentence, they struggle and are often at a loss. It seems that a lot of people see it as a rather subjective thing and can’t put their arms around it too well.

So that’s when I hit them with a definition that happens to be my personal favorite and we go on from there. I got it many, many years ago from a wise colleague and I have treasured it ever since for it’s simplicity and nail-on-the-head accuracy. And now I want to pass it along to you, too:

To be responsible means to respond appropriately. It’s a good, simple definition to keep in your back pocket and pull out whenever you’re the least bit unsure about whether your parenting behavior is all that it should be. It’s a fairly concrete guidepost that you can turn to whenever you’re caught off guard or muddled about what you should do.

It’s important to remember that people can over function in the realm of responsibility just as they can under function. It’s all about finding that fine line of what is appropriate given the circumstance. If you tend to be an over-functioner with regards to your kids and their obligations, you may find that they will start to respond by underfunctioning.

Let’s test it out and you’ll see what I mean. We can start with an easy one:

What if … your 3-year-old has gotten hold of the pinking shears and is attempting to give her baby brother a hair cut? Should you let her? If you consider it for even a second you’ll realize that in order to respond appropriately you must say no and take away the sharp scissors before anyone gets hurt. She is unaware of the danger (or her limitations) and it’s your job to keep everyone safe.

What if … you are at a big, festive holiday party and the host asks if your 12-year-old son can have a little wine with dinner too, since it’s a special occasion? He’s the youngest kid there by a several years and all of the others are being allowed to imbibe. What is the responsible thing to do?

Well, think for a moment … responsible means to respond appropriately. So what does that look like in this situation? Well, the facts are the same, holiday or not: it’s against the law for children to drink alcohol in this country (for many valid reasons). If you allow your son to have the wine he gets the message that laws are negotiable and we can choose when and if we want to follow them. Is that an appropriate message to send to your child?

What if … you’re at Target and you see a four-year-old wandering around with no parent in sight? You’re in a rush to get out of there because you have company coming to dinner and you’re already late. What is the responsible thing to do here?

Once again it comes down to figuring out the appropriate response. Is it appropriate for an adult who becomes aware of a seemingly lost or unattended child to do nothing and let the chips fall where they may regarding her safety? Could your intervention protect this vulnerable child from harm? Is it appropriate for you to do what you can to get her taken care of?

What if … your eight-year-old is never hungry at dinner time because he likes to snack from the fridge throughout the day? It started years ago and has now become a habit. He seems to be growing okay and you hate to argue with him. Are you being responsible in letting the unsupervised grazing continue at the expense of eating a meal at the table with the family?

Well, just think: Is it part of your job as parent to make sure he gets his nutritional needs met? Yes, of course. Is it part of your job to teach him social skills and customs? Yes, again. So given your job description, what would the appropriate response be? It’s pretty obvious that you have to figure out a way to break the bad habit that has been established, right? That would be the responsible (appropriate, given your role as parent) thing to do.

What if … your seventh grader tells you that his science project is due tomorrow? He needs to get all the supplies and the project will take several hours to complete. He was given the assignment a couple weeks ago but ignored it. Now he is begging for your help. You know that his grade in science is hinging on whether he does well on this project. Should you cancel your own plans, roll up your sleeves, and get busy?

Well, consider for a moment — is it your job as parent to do your child’s work for him in order to keep moving things along or is it your job to help him learn about planning, making choices, managing his time and facing consequences even when they hurt? Once you make that determination you can figure out what kind of a response would be appropriate (and responsible), given your role.

What if … your first-grader was up last night vomiting and has a fever this morning? He seems better though and you have an important meeting at work. Your husband is out of town and you are trying to decide whether to send him to school or not. His teacher is pregnant with her first child.

So think about it for a minute: what is the appropriate response, given the situation? Is it appropriate to send a sick child to school when you aren’t really sure what he has or whether he is contagious? Would it be appropriate to expose all the other children and the pregnant teacher because you are in a jam? Is it appropriate to make this the school’s problem or does it belong to you?

What if … your 13-month-old has a low fever and is acting out-of-sorts? You took her to the doctor a couple days ago. He examined her and brushed off your concerns chalking it up to a mild but nothing-to-worry-about virus. It has persisted though, and his office is not taking your calls seriously. You are the person in charge of what happens to your child. You know something is not right. Is it appropriate to discount your own intuition in the matter or should you insist that she be seen again?

What if … your 10-year-old is exhausted in the morning because he was up late celebrating his grandparent’s 50th anniversary with the family? Is it okay to let him sleep in and go to school later even though he is struggling a little in math?

Given the circumstances — that he was expected to attend an important family event, that you kept him up late, he is really tired, and this is not a typical scenario for your family — what’s the appropriate response?

What if … you overhear your 15-year-old’s friends talking about how “trashed” they got at the party they went to last night? Would it be responsible to pretend you didn’t hear it? Or, do you have an obligation to bring it out into the open? What is the appropriate response for a parent who comes face-to-face with that kind of information?

So you kind of get the idea, right? If it’s helpful, give it a try next time you find yourself in the land of “I wonder whether I’m being responsible here.”

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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3 responses to “What Exactly IS A “Responsible” Parent?”

  1. Tony Cornist

    Im doing a term paper, and I was looking for tips how a responsible parent would conduct them selves when trying to raise thier kids.

  2. Isaac Bernier

    I love this. Thank you so much, this is exactly what I was looking for.

  3. sara turner

    Thank you for giving me an idea. It help some. I guess I try to always solve my kids problem but sometimes it gets so tiredsome. My husband gets angry with me when I do this so we end up fighting. I just don’t know anymore if Im doing the right thing. I really feel overwhelmed with everything in my life. I don’t know anymore.

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