Boston Globe Online:

Not easy, teaching responsibility

By Rea Killeen, 3/11/2001

"It's great, mom. And all the kids have one."

"How much is it?" I ask. "I don't know, but I neeeed it," he says.

I call a few places and discover that my son's would-be helpmate, "RAD. Robot" by Toymax Inc., is a $100 pal. So I told him that he could buy it. "You could do some jobs, then use your savings from Christmas and your birthday," I suggest. His answer? "Never mind. I don't really need it."

How quickly his needs changed when the money to be spent was his own. How urgent my need became to teach my kids fiscal responsibility! And how tedious and trying teaching responsibility turns out to be.

I remember last spring and summer when the coveted item was fitted hats. We had lots of baseball caps - but they weren't fitted caps, and so, according to my kids, they didn't count. Because I couldn't see how anyone would need more caps than what we had buried in our breezeway bins, I suggested they buy the caps themselves. This brought the expected litany of objections and accusations that I was the meanest mother in the world. And when s cooters hit the streets, I suggested they save their money or write to Santa. Again, whiny reactions.

I liken teaching responsibility day in and day out to my husband's job of cleaning out the gutters. No one admires his work, but it needs to be done. Similarly, no one sees that it's your kids (and not you) buying their caps, scooters, and robots. No one sees the tirades and tantrums that accompany these lessons.

It's not like when they get A's in school; everyone sees this. Teachers give glowing comments; newspapers print the names of the honor roll students; awards are presented at the end of the school year. Let's face it, when it comes to school and sports, when our kids look good, we look good.

There are no newpaper clippings to reward dull old responsibility. Maybe a few teachers, friends, and neighbors recognize something special about the child who has been raised to act responsibly. As one mother said, "When a kid comes to your house and then starts to pick up the toys when it's time to go, you just want to get down on your knees and thank his parents!"

But when you try to teach responsibility, don't expect applause. Just expect to be inconvenienced.

My older son likes golf. "Good sport," I tell him. "The greens fees can be pricey, but they're worth it. You'll need to earn some money." To his credit, he was eager to do this, and he attended a caddy school at Wollaston Country Club Golf Course. Caddy school was sandwiched between the end of his school day and the beginning of his baseball games. So, after taxiing him from school to the club, I'd race home to make portable dinners that he could swallow while riding from the club to his baseball games.

Then, at 5:50 a.m. on weekends, when everyone else's bedroom shades were still in the sleep position, I was driving him to the club.

As each week passed, I noticed a drop in attendance at the caddy shack. I'm not sure who found this schedule too difficult - the kids or the parents?

Yes, responsibility is an utter bother to teach. It makes me uncomfortable just walking by the piles of folded laundry that amass in my kids' rooms. I positively twitch with the urge to just shove these items in the drawers. Sometimes I crack, and hastily jam them in the dressers, almost afraid to be caught doing what I like to tell people my kids should be doing. But usually, I can hang in there and let those piles multiply exponentially until finally telling the kids that if they don't take care of their laundry, they are grounded from life.

The news is inundated with stories of irresponsible people: parents blaming teachers and coaches, coaches blaming players, players blaming coaches, lawyers blaming doctors, doctors blaming insurance companies. As a kid, I heard the word "responsibility" on a daily basis. It was part of my school day, my piano and ballet lessons, my swim team practice, my baby-sitting jobs, and my friendships. This word was everywhere! Now, as a parent, I can see why.

I think back on the first morning my son went to caddy. I watched him walk down the path toward the caddy shack. At 11 years old, he seemed so small still, so young. I worried that the long day, the heavy bags, the hilly walk might be too much. When I picked him up four hours later, he was grinning, pockets full of hard-earned money and a head full of stories.

What he learned and earned that day was more valuable than any things I could ever give him. He learned that a fitted cap equals four hours of trudging up hills, lugging a heavy bag of golf clubs in the heat of the summer sun.

He has his cap, and believe me, that cap is not buried at the bottom of a breezeway bin. No way. That cap is hung on his bedpost with respect, the delightful offspring of responsibility.

Rea Killeen, a teacher of writing and literature, has three young sons and writes from Milton. Her e-mail address is

This story ran on page W02 of the Boston Globe on 3/11/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.