The Lesson of the Bear:
Helping Kids Become Responsible
by Richard and Linda Eyre
Editors’ Note: This is lesson 3 in the Nurturing series. .
By the time I (Richard) was in elementary school, my family had moved to a little town in the Rocky Mountains. In that town there was a legend – some said a true story – probably a combination of the two – about a huge grizzly bear known as “Old Ephraim” or “Old Three Toes” that had terrorized the early settlers of the community in the nineteenth century. Because of the legend, and because Grizzlies still lived in the not too distant mountains, there was a certain level of interest in the huge bears, and I grew up knowing a little about their size and their ferocity.
Even their name is scary – “grizzly” in the common vernacular and “ursus arctos horribilis” in scientific jargon. Grizzlies get as big as seven feet and 800 pounds, and they have three-inch claws. Their unique muscle connections give them phenomenal strength in their jaws, shoulders, and front legs. They can eat 40 pounds of food per day and can outrun a deer over short distances.
My own personal favorite story about a grizzly bear, however, is not the old legend, and is actually a funny story rather than a scary one: Two hikers were walking up a trail high in the Rocky Mountains one day, and as they came around a bend, they found themselves face to face with a huge bear. One of the hikers immediately sat down on the ground, pulled a pair of running shoes out of his back pack and began putting them on in place of his heavy climbing boots.
The other hiker stared at him in amazement and asked, “What are you doing? Do you think you can outrun a bear?”
The first hiker answered, “I don’t need to outrun the bear; I only need to outrun you!”
Now, sorry about the slightly grizzly implication of the story, but its purpose is to make the point that we sometimes view our lives with the perspective of that first hiker, running away or trying to distance ourselves from difficult situations and pegging our survival on our ability to outmaneuver or stay ahead of other people who will become victims.
We tend to ignore the problems of the inner city or of a declining neighborhood because we don’t live there anymore, we’ve escaped it. Let someone else get eaten! It’s not our problem.
In our families, if we are not careful, we let our children avoid accountability in the same way. They don’t clean their rooms because they can run away from it, someone else will do it. They don’t earn their own money because we will give it to them. They don’t have to face up to or fix their own mistakes because we will bail them out.
And as parents, we have our own ways of running from or escaping difficult or unpleasant tasks – of leaving the tough battles to others. We imagine that we’re on too fast a track to have time for our mundane, every-day parental duties, so we leave as many of them as we can to care givers, school teachers, coaches, music teachers, tutors, camp counselors, and anyone else we can farm our kids out to. We adopt the “general contractor” method of parenting – using or hiring “subcontractors” to do the actual work of “building” or training or teaching our children. We begin to see our job as just lining things up and then getting our kids from one place to another.
Like the hiker in running shoes, we scramble for safer, higher ground, prioritizing our own comfort and leaving someone else to deal with the bearish burdens. Valuing extra status or wealth, we’re willing to sprint ahead with our careers even when it means leaving the “burden” of a small child with a tender or at day care for extended periods. Then we let our kids return the favor when they escape from cleaning their rooms or doing household chores or budgeting their money.
The lesson of the bear is responsibility; taking full and complete responsibility for our family and for each of our children; prioritizing our parental role above our other roles; teaching our children by that example and expecting them to accept family responsibilities, too.
It is an important lesson because responsibility, like a fast, hungry bear, usually catches up with us. Running from family financial responsibility – living beyond our means – probably results in credit card debt that eats us. Running from the direct, everyday responsibility for small children results eventually in less trust and communication and often in kids with expanding problems which we may not even know about. And letting our children run from family and personal responsibility results in adolescents who are always looking for the easy way out and who never become truly independent.
Unlike the retreating hiker, we must face up to the full responsibility of raising a child, accepting the help of sources from schools to scouting, but understanding that “the buck stops here.”
Unlike the retreating hiker, we need to prioritize the challenge in front of us, realizing, as C. S. Lewis said, that parenting is the ultimate career and the career which all other careers support.
Unlike the retreating hiker, our children need to confront responsibility of their own, from little household chores when they are small to earning their spending money during their teens.
The beauty of family responsibility is that, as it is faced and accepted, it becomes a friendly bear, a happy companion that makes our walk through the woods safer and more enjoyable. It allows us to keep moving forward on the path rather than running back up the hill or taking detours off into the underbrush. It becomes our protector rather than our foe, a loved member of the family rather than something to be avoided or feared.
I woke up on a Saturday morning to a knocking on our bedroom door. I opened it to find four of our kids, ages seven through eleven, demanding their weekly allowance. Something about it reminded me of a welfare line, and I began to wonder if something-for-nothing allowances were the best way to go.
After a little thinking, a few discussions with the kids, and a lot of trial and error, we evolved a little family system that emphasizes initiative and responsibility and that more accurately resembles “the real world.”
Each child had a simple pegboard with his name on it and four big blocky pegs hanging from little chains. The first “morning peg” could be put in if he got up and ready for school on time. The second “chore peg” went in when he’d done his little assigned household task and checked the common area of the home or yard he’d been assigned to. The third “practice peg” could go in if he finished his homework and music practice, and the fourth “bedtime peg” was for getting ready for bed and being in bed by bedtime.
We made a big wooden “family bank” with a big padlock and a slot in the top into which the children could put a slip each week night with a “1,” “2,” “3,” or “4” on it, depending on how many of their pegs they got in that day. The slip had to be initialed by a parent or tender.
Saturdays became “pay day.” The bank was opened by the paymaster (me) and each child got paid according to how many total pegs he had for the week. For one thing, it gave me an opportunity to practice the lesson of the crabs. I would praise a child who had remembered his pegs and got a lot of money, and I’d try to simply ignore a child who did poorly.
As the system evolved, we gave the kids checkbooks (real ones, but they drew only on the family bank) so they could fill out deposit slips to put money in and checks to take money out. We adjusted the amounts they could earn so they could begin to buy their own clothes. (It amazed us how perceived “ownership” influenced them to hang things up and put things away.) Essentially the bank included separate savings accounts and kids started taking a savings percentage out of each paycheck along with an amount to give to church or charity. The family bank savings accounts paid high interest on the agreement that the savings and compounding interest could only be used for college tuition when the time came.
The best thing about the system is that it gave us frequent opportunities to talk about responsibility, self-discipline, and self-reliance.
One family sat down together on a Sunday afternoon and made a simple list of all the things it took to keep the household going for a week – buying and cooking food, keeping the yard up, washing dishes . . . everything they could think of . . . until they had quite a long list which led to a family discussion about how parents had most of the responsibilities but how children needed to have some. Out of that discussion came the assignment of some specific household responsibilities to each child.
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One mother with a similar notion to our pegboard, made up simple star chart for each child where each star represented a specific responsibility, such as cleaning their room or doing their chores. Instead of endlessly reminding the children to do each task, she could now simply say, “Are your stars up?” and the children could take the initiative of trying to remember what each of their daily responsibilities were. She also tied the children’s weekly allowance to how many stars each child had put in for the week so that the allowance was no longer an “entitlement” but a variable, proportionate weekly reward for the responsibilities that were met.
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One couple, somewhat overwhelmed by the responsibility they felt for their beautiful but hyperactive twins, made a habit of praying for strength and guidance in their stewardship for two of God’s children. They found that thinking of their children as a stewardship for which they were responsible to God gave them both humility and confidence.
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One couple, hopeful of helping their two elementary-age boys make responsible life choices, set up a chart for each of them titled, “Decisions in Advance.” They explained to the boys that many people make bad choices and then blame them on their circumstances or on the people around them. They then suggested that the best time to make certain decisions is in advance, before the pressure comes to do the wrong thing. Over the next few weeks they helped the boys come up with advance decisions ranging from “I will not experiment with drugs” to “I will graduate from college.” The boys listed their pre-made choices and signed and dated them.
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One family with three basketball-crazy boys was having a difficult time getting them to remember to check on the part of the house or yard they had been asked to be responsible for . . . until she started calling the assigned areas “zones.” The boys knew all about “zone defense” and all the mom had to say was “Remember, a good defender doesn’t let anything bad happen in his zone!”
There are many ways to approach responsibility within a family, and what methods you choose are not nearly as important as your commitment to it and the emphasis that your children see you putting on it. Start with the positive. Recognize the responsibility your child already takes, and give yourself some credit for all the responsibility you accept just by being a caring parent. Then look for ways to build on what you already have. Start with small steps, be content with small progress and steady improvement. Remember that parenting is not a game of perfect.
Remember and remind yourself of the lesson of the bear. Don’t run. Stay and fully accept family responsibility and turn it into a joy – the joy of your life.
Good luck. And come and visit us at valuesparenting.com.
Read the next article “The Nature of Discipline: The Law of the Elephant’s Trunk“
2003 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.