In a previous post, I wrote about the relationship between responsibility and accountability and how each contributes to my understanding of our democracy, our economy, and our education practices.
With this blog, I want to revisit the topic, but in much more personal and individual terms:
So, picture a 12 year old allowed for the first time to spend the night at a friend’s house. As Mom pulls to the curb to drop me off and I open the car door, I hear: “Remember, you’re responsible for yourself. Make good choices.”
Now, picture a 16 year old taking the car out on a Friday night for the first time and driving around friends who were still only 15. My key hits the house door and as it cracks to the outside air, electric with anticipated freedom: “Remember, you’re responsible for yourself. Make good choices.”
Finally, picture an 18 year old taking his girlfriend to Senior Prom and with a curfew extension (past 12pm) for this special occasion. Tuxedo on, my Dad’s car key in hand, I make it as far as the sidewalk and hear: “Remember, you’re responsible for yourself. Make good choices.”
How many times did I hear this refrain!? Obviously, at 35 it is still in my mind and is the cornerstone of my own sense of personal responsibility. Although as a teen I may have rolled my eyes hearing these words over and over again, I knew what Mom meant, and I knew that she was reminding me of a social contract we had. I got freedom and opportunity as long as I showed that I was responsible enough to handle it.
And, I knew I would be held accountable if and when my responsibility lapsed. I also knew why. There was no question and no fight. I knew what was expected of me and I knew when I had failed those expectations. Candidly, with a teenage son, my Mom knew I would screw up. The question was how badly and how would I respond.
But, what is critical in all of this is that my Mom’s message framed responsibility as an omnipresent driver of decision-making, and she made clear that almost everything boils down to a decision. Even if I chose to be irresponsible, I knew I was responsible for that choice. I couldn’t blame peer pressure. I couldn’t claim ignorance.
Alternatively, it is also important to share what I did not hear from my Mom:
“Remember, don’t smoke cigarettes! If I catch you then I will…”
“Remember, don’t speed or drive recklessly! If I catch you then I will…”
“Remember, don’t drink and don’t have sex! If I catch you then I will…”
Mom knew that responsibility taught only in the shadow of accountability (or threat of punishment) lives in a narrow silo of a single cause and a single effect. As an element of decision-making, on the other hand, it can be a lifelong and life-wide skill. We talked about all of these issues (smoking, drinking, etc.) openly and then it was up to me to make the right decision. Most of the time, I did. Sometimes, I didn’t.
So, at age 35, I am trying to understand and diagnose my Mom’s ability to instill a sense of responsibility in my siblings and me as teenagers. And, as best I can tell, responsibility only exists relationally with accountability and positive relationships. Try reflecting on your own experiences growing up, or even in your life today: A relationship without responsibility? Responsibility without any sense of accountability? Accountability without a relationship? (My experience says these don’t work.)
But what is it that links these elements? What are the connectors?
Relationships - Responsibility: These two are connected by effective communication and trust. It is pretty obvious for most of us that a relationship without trust is usually a pretty poor relationship. But, have we thought about how the quality of communication of our expectations, for example, impacts others’ sense of responsibility to us and to themselves? Have we communicated to our young people how valuable and important they are, how much we love them, how much we believe in them, what we expect of them, so that they feel responsible for honoring their own lives and as well as respecting those around them? Do our own actions model the responsibility we seek from them, so that they can trust us? Have we given them the chance to express what they expect from us?
Responsibility – Accountability: These two are connected by logic and clarity. If I don’t understand the logic of what I am being held accountable for, I am not likely to feel responsible to it. If I understand it but I really don’t buy the logic behind it (and also am not buying the relationship), I am not likely to feel responsible to it. We must ensure that young people understand the logic behind our accountability and be clear (and repetitive) as to what the accountability is and why. And in doing so, we can help them own a sense of responsibility and accountability to themselves and not just to us.
Accountability – Relationships: These two are connected by consistency and unconditional love. Accountability must be consistently and equitably (refer to trust) applied. If I screw up, I should be able to count on those who love me to hold me accountable. I also must know that I can be forgiven and that the love of those around me is unconditional. If I believe love is conditional, then I can be irresponsible all I want, and figure “well, I would have lost it at some point anyway.” If I know love will always be there, I have to make choices knowing I cannot break away from it or set it aside. If love is unconditional then I am unconditionally responsible to/for it.
So, this is just a start. I am still seeking to understand and fulfill my responsibilities to myself and those around me. And, like all of us, I’m still trying to make good choices.