Being a parent encompasses a variety of roles and responsibilities. Parents have to look after their children, provide them with what they need, encourage positive behaviours, and guide them morally. However there is a distinction that must be drawn between what parents are responsible for, and when, and what children need to be or become responsible for later in life. There are many varied views and opinions on this matter, with some professionals believing that parents are always responsible for their child’s well-being in some way or another, and others believing that as soon as a child reaches a certain age, or leaves the family home, that parents are no longer accountable or responsible for their child’s behaviour.
When babies and toddlers cannot fend for and look after themselves parents are expected to this for them. A mother must feed her child, bath them, dress them and comfort them. An infant in a dangerous situation, such as near a sharp table corner, will need to be moved away by their parent. They cannot perform these activities for themselves and it is the mother, father or caregiver’s responsibility to do so. Should anything happen to a child during this time parents can be held liable.
Two different psychologists were asked the following question: “When does a parent’s responsibility for their child end?”
At 18! Parents are no longer legally liable for their children, and they are free to make their own decisions. Parents can still have rules in their home though – such as no smoking inside. So while they may accept that their adult child has made a decision that would not have been allowed prior to them being 18, they can still have some say in how their child behaves in their company. In the same way it is the parents’ role to ensure that their child eats healthily and leads a healthy lifestyle. However, at a certain point it is no longer the ‘fault’ of the parents if their child is obese, or anorexic, and is a choice or consequence of their child’s decisions. Parents can still take action and will inevitably care for their child and do whatever they can, but they cannot be held accountable. They no longer have the responsibility.
Until they are independent and can fend for themselves (within reason of course). If, even after your guidance, counsel and even threats, your child decides to drive under the influence of alcohol, that is their decision. If they are under the age of 18 you will be accountable for them legally, but after that you cannot be held responsible legally or emotionally. Children will rebel. They will behave differently to how their parents teach them. Provided you as parents have done everything you can to teach your child and model appropriate behaviours, you cannot be accountable when they make mistakes. It is difficult though. If you’re living with a young adult daughter with an eating disorder, and you have encouraged her to seek help, it may reach a point where you have to force help on her. But where does this end? What if you’re 70 and your child is 45. Does the same apply? It’s very difficult to draw a distinct line.
What do the theorists say?
According to Erik Erikson, between the ages of 5 and 12 years old children are in a stage of ‘Industry vs Inferiority’ where they strive for competence and an understanding that they can accomplish tasks. They become more aware of themselves as individuals, and separate from others. Children of this age will seek independence and they need to be encouraged to become competent in certain areas. Children will start to learn to read and write and attempt more complex tasks. They will also develop a sense of moral values during this stage. It is important that during this stage they are encouraged to develop their independence, with the guidance of their parents. On a basic level they will want to choose what to wear, dress themselves, decide which foods they like or dislike, brush their own teeth, bath themselves and may be able to even make their own food/juice. On a deeper level they will start to form their own friendships at school – independent of the playdates parents arrange, and they will develop a sense of right and wrong (through what they are taught by parents or teachers, and through their experiences).
During the next stage, ‘Identity vs Role Confusion’ (ages 13-19) adolescents attempt to find out who they are in the world, and who they can be. It is important during this time that adolescents are not berated or chastised for making decisions that may be different to those of their parents. However, parents still need to ensure that their child is guided in such a way that they are safe and informed in their decision making. The law prohibits certain behaviours before certain ages. For example, in South Africa, anybody under the age of 18 is prohibited from drinking and buying alcohol. I am sure there are multiple reasons behind this rule, but one of which must be that an adolescent under the age of 18 may not be responsible enough to make decisions about alcohol and how much to drink. The law is put in place to protect them. It is the parent’s responsibility during this time to do the same; to ensure, to the best of their ability, that their child does not break these rules. Thereafter, a person can make their own choices regarding alcohol, and while it may no longer be the parent’s responsibility to take cognizance of how much their child is drinking, it is their role as parents to ensure that their child, while living in their home, is safe and looked after. Parents need to ensure that they are not over-protective of their children, while at the same time not neglecting to guide and advise them in an appropriate way. While parents are no longer legally liable for their children once they turn 18, parents need to bear in mind that the human brain is still developing (until one’s mid-twenties) and these young adults still require guidance from their parents, even though their parents may not be responsible for their decisions.
Don’t eat that!
Young children may require stricter boundaries with regard to certain behaviours such as eating healthily, and parents may need to place rules about when treats or junk food is allowed. A Sunday treat was popular in our household when I was growing up. It made me look forward to my treat, while keeping as healthy as possible during the week. Parents need to avoid using treats as bribery or to quieten a noisy child in the supermarket. I am of the opinion that parents are responsible for their child’s physical health when they are younger, because boundaries can be put in place to ensure that your child receives a balanced diet and enough nutrition. However, while parents can guide their children or adolescents and encourage them to eat healthily or exercise, they do not have control when their child is outside the home. If a child decides to eat foods from their friends or the school tuck shop on top of, or instead of their packed lunch, that is their decision, and it is therefore their responsibility to make healthy food choices. The ideal is that parents are able to teach and model behaviours in the family home that can ‘spill out’ into the child’s life outside the home.
Modelling appropriate behaviours
As with healthy food choices, children will make their own decisions about values, religion, morals, interests and friendships. It is important for parents to model what they view as appropriate behaviours or values so that their child can learn from their parents as much as possible. As mentioned, as children become more independent they will create their own opinions and ideas, but the hope is that these opinions will be based in the positive modelling they observed from their parents. There are times when parents can be blamed or held responsible for their child’s misdemeanours, and more often than not this is when parents do not model appropriate behaviours, or do not discipline their child when necessary. Even with modelling of certain behaviours, or boundaries that are put in place in the home, children will still rebel. A child who always sees his parents placing their towels on a towel rack after their showers will still throw his towel on the floor, and more often than not an adolescent whose parents don’t drink very much is going to want to try it out for himself. There are limits to how much a parent can control with regard to their child’s behaviour. Sadly, there are often these times when parents cannot be held accountable, where family love and moral guidance on the parents’ part is not enough, and children rebel such as in the examples above, or even commit crimes.
When children develop a sense of independence there is a natural decrease in the amount of control parents have over their child’s decisions. There is no hard and fast rule, however, or easy way to draw a distinction. There are many grey areas when it comes to parental responsibilities versus a child’s choices. Each person and each situation is different, and each comes with its own set of challenges. Parents and caregivers need to ensure they are doing what is best for their child, while still providing them with opportunities to make their own decisions and even to learn from their mistakes.
Written for Mamas and Papas Magazine