Life Question: The hazards of teaching responsibility

I let out an involuntary gasp as I turned over the price tag. This child’s ski jacket was unbelievably expensive. But of course it was. If someone needed to buy a ski jacket in this village high in the Austrian mountains, the shop owners could charge what they liked. A ski jacket when skiing was hardly an unnecessary accessory. I shut my eyes and sighed. I’d have to pay it. 

The thing was, the need to buy this ski jacket was a severe blow to my pride. Weeks before I had been bragging to my friend about how I had taught my children to do their own packing. They were still at primary school, but as soon as they could read they had been given packing lists to get their sports bags ready. I had brought them up with the maxim, ‘Mummy won’t do anything for you that you can do for yourself’. I acknowleged that I was teaching them responsibility early. Most mums I knew were still packing their children’s bags when they started secondary school. But I was determined that my children were not going to be that namby-pamby. They knew how to pack their games kit; having been given a list they could pack for a ski holiday. 

At the school gate, other mums had explained to me that when time was short, it was simply easier to sort out the PE kit themselves. That way there was less likely to be a last minute panic as they were about to leave the house in the morning. I understood that issue. I too had shouted my way through the awful five minutes before the school run on innumerable occasions. I frequently stumbled into work grateful for the blessed relief of its calm order. It was such a contrast to the chaos monster that I had been battling earlier. 

Still, I was determined that my children’s need to learn responsibility was of over-riding importance. There might be a few minutes of panic while my daughter looked for her ‘cello music just as we were leaving. They were a reasonable price to pay for the longer-term benefit of having a child who was independent. Sometimes it meant I had to be really tough; I usually refused to turn back if a child remembered something they had forgotten halfway to school. They would have to face the ire of their teacher themselves. They would learn to be organised faster that way. 

I wasn’t always so uncompromising. Occasionally I would back down if there was a special reason. When my son had a music exam and had forgotten to bring in his trumpet I did deliver it to school. Now a young adult,  he points out that there were occasions when I was the person who had forgotten something. I was prepared to double back on the school run then. ‘Hmm’ he says, with raised eyebrows. He’s still sure I wasn’t fair. 

I guess it was easier to be tough on the days when I genuinely could not produce the forgotten item because I myself was going to work. If I had been at home full-time it would have been harder to justify this hard-line approach. But even on my non-work days I persisted in expecting my children to understand that my whole life did not revolve around being their nursemaid. 

There were definite benefits to my tough approach. I’m convinced my children’s transition to secondary school was easier because they were used to organising their own belongings. Selecting the items they needed for the next three lessons out of a locker was a challenge that my children achieved with ease. Their friends struggled.  

But now, in Austria, the cost of this approach was staring me in the face. I had left my young son to do his own packing and he had left his ski jacket behind. Of all the things that needed to be in his suitcase, this was the most important item and the most costly to replace. It clearly had been unfair to give him that much responsibility at his age. And worst of all, one of the mothers who always did her children’s packing was on holiday with us, and she would be quite within her rights to crow over me. ‘You see?’ I was right not to leave it to the kids after all,’ she could well have said. ‘You don’t look such a good mum now, do you?’  

Back in the ski clothing shop, I silently got out my purse and paid for my pride. 

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