Responsibility – whose? – what kind?

This is a response to Sidey who commented on my post Being a Granny, saying “being a grandparent means being able to love without the responsibility”. I have heard this lots of times, felt it too as I love returning to my own space, but learning grannyhood has been a journey just like learning parenting once was, life-changing in its own way. I do not agree with the comment. I feel there is always responsibility, indeed the more love the more responsibility – but responsibilities  are of different kinds. Parental responsibility is bounded too, not the total aaagh which it sometimes seems. At least, I think this now, it is where I have got to so far. Be warned, this is a long post, but then it is a big topic.

I am thinking about two important strands which have led me here, the tied together issues of responsibility and rights. A little bit of separated thinking, though they are better back together, mutually related.

Responsibility: Surely the only person we can be responsible FOR is oneself? Of course we are always in relationship to others (in some way, even when alone) what we do (even a passive nothing or unchosen unconscious reaction) affects the others, so we can say we are also always responsible (accountable) TO others. And this means that the “what kind of responsibility” is related to the role we have in that relationship. [Yeah Yeah, roles are complex, multiple, lover, admirer, counsellor, teacher, punisher?, playmate, friend, nurse, doctor, etc etc dependent on context, but keep this simple, there is a difference between being a Mum and being a Granny, to the baby/child/teenager/adult].

My favourite picture of a 10-month old child discovering ‘responsibility for her actions’, just after she had learnt to open the fridge door and tossed all sorts of delightful stuff on to the floor. Look at the eye contact, the way this wonderful mum gets her message across.

But, even as parent, I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT MY CHILDREN DO. They are responsible. At any age!!! YES I mean that – think about the ‘what kind of responsibility and how to exercise it’ phrase. As parent I am/was responsible for my actions (that includes omissions) now it is to my sons and daughters-in-law, and I am responsible for my actions as grandmother (to each of my grandchildren). But, how they receive my action, how they react or respond, that is their responsibility. [There is a whole other post here about the wrongness of blaming parents who are already in difficulty bringing up their children, about the punitive bringing parents to book, etc. rather than offering some more challenging kind of interaction which would bring both children and parents to accept responsibilities for themselves and to others.]

Before talking about ‘rights’  (and isn’t this picture also about the right of a child to learn that her action has consequences in a non-punitive way?) there is a little discussed psychological relation sometimes known as ‘psychic theft’. This happens when parents (or other responsible adults in relationship with someone who depends on them, i.e. doctor-patient, teacher-pupil, etc.) take over responsibility which is not actually theirs to take. And yes we all do it over and over again , and learn not to – ask my daughters-in-law how long it took me to learn whose children the grandkids are – so this is not a guilt trip discussion.

Psychic theft is a problem if it is chronic, and remains unlearned. Example: A small child, just learning to manage feeding herself, reaches out for the banana and tips over her cup of milk (example borrowed from Christopher Bollas, then put in my words, so I am responsible for this). Attentive Carer (the thief) jumps up whisks child and banana out of way, and cleans up. Why is this theft? Alternative scenario – child reaches for banana, spills milk. Oh says carer, softly, oh, says child, starting to think as milk drips on her leg. Tissue, she says, she is just starting to talk too. Carer hands over kitchen roll, child does swiping about, mother says will I help and when invited manages to unobtrusively restore order. The difference is that the child had already some ability to feel responsible, and a wish to make things better, and she learns that this is both possible and feels good. She develops both ability and self-confidence. The first reaction takes responsibility away from the child, in effect steals her capacity to care about her own actions. Her chance to develop has been taken away. Both the controlling kind of parent, and the permissive kind of parent, can be thieves, they both see the child as unable to take any responsibility. The trick is to imagine the person you are responsible towards has just a bit more capability than you think they have, then you can back-track if you have to, clean up the spilt milk. (You can’t back-track from a theft, the opportunity does not return.) You are in a reciprocal responsive relationship, neither controlling nor permissive.

Rights: Start thinking about the rights of the others the grandparents and parents are responsible to – the babies who will become toddlers, then, children, then teenagers, then adults, and maybe become parents too, one day. Once a long time ago as a lecturer/teacher trainer I did a lot of lecturing (still accessible) around this subject, using the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, the CRC.

[Quick aside – do you know that the CRC is the most complete statement of children’s rights ever produced and is the most widely-ratified international human rights treaty in history. All UN member states except for two have now formally approved the Convention. Who are these two countries who have not ratified CRC in their own governing bodies? They are Somalia and USA. If you are a citizen of USA, do you know why not? If you are a citizen of Somalia, we know your country is riven by civil war, which might prevent attention to other details, but still, why not?]

Every child has a right to the 3 P’s: Provision, Protection, and Participation. The first two are pretty obvious, provision of the necessities of life, like food, clean water, shelter, and protection from harm, whatever kind from dirty water to psychological harm to cluster bombs and all that stuff. Parents try, grandparents help, so do all sorts of responsible people in our societies. (Sadly ratification hasn’t made rights happen in lots of cases, and lots of places, who made all those decisions to bomb somewhere.) The third, participation, is the one which ties in to ‘who is responsible for what’ as it means the child has a right to participation in all decisions and actions which concern him/her. If a child is denied participation, there is probably some psychic theft going on somewhere. Responsibility, that which belongs to the child, is quite impossible to isolate from rights, it is deeply and irrevocably connected to them. Ditto, adults also have both.

All my family, in 2009, the only time we have all been together on the same continent, to celebrate my ex’s 70th birthday. We continue to co-parent, as well as we can, and sometimes co-grand-parent too, though that has not happened very often.

What has all this to do with being a granny? Maybe just that psychic theft story – all it takes to make the difference is not jumping in without reflecting. We are not talking emergencies here! The momentary stop, feel (empathy), think (who needs the help, what kind of help) oops does it just make ME feel busy-and-good, etc. Maybe my role just now is ‘let them get on with it’, all the way to ‘help asked for, choose how to give it.

While I was writing this I recalled one of my own very early memories. I am three years old (true because it happens in the house we moved out of soon after that) and I am sitting on the bench with my feet in the kitchen sink, helping my mother wash the dishes. That’s it. I remember I AM HELPING, and where I was sitting. Any adult, especially those harassed by a three year-old, and somewhere there was also a sister aged 4 and a sister aged 1, can imagine the nature of the help offered, and know well that probably I was being kept away from the baby, or comforted after a spat with my big sister, whatever. But what I know now I have had children of my own, is that I had a mother who helped me to feel able to help. I wish she could have met the daughters-in-law and the grandchildren. I wonder would she have liked blogging? I bet she would!

We are each responsible for our own actions, in the role we have with the others, especially our capacity to reflect as we act, or hold back the ‘me’ reaction. Thanks again Sidey, for the stimulus to revisit and think again. There are now a whole lot more posts waiting to happen, like ‘love’ and ‘freedom’. If you have read this far, I hope you are stimulated too, freedom from what? did you say??


3 thoughts on “Responsibility – whose? – what kind?

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful look at responsibility. I believe that a child is not responsible for his/her actions until that child has a functioning “superego”–hmmm–using different terms, this is what Transactional Analysis call’s our “parent.” The parent part of us combines two aspects: rules and loving/nurturing. When a child understands about “no” and expectations for behavior, then adds the ability to use empathy and caring, then a child can make choices that are responsible choices. Typically, children somewhere between the ages of 2 and 3 begin to learn about how their choices effect the behavior of others (pleasing or displeasing parents). I love your picture of Mom with 10 month old, and hopefully Mom will understand if her daughter repeats the same type of emptying of closets or pantry or shoe rack without understanding the concept of “not emptying” as applied to many things, not just the refrigerator. Gotta stop — it can be a very long topic. Thanks again, Barb


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