Parents of older grade schoolers or adolescents often say their children do not appreciate the good life they have nor the efforts their parents make. In reality, there is no particular reason why your child should be especially grateful about the opportunities and things available to her. After all, your child has grown up in a family environment where such opportunities automatically are available as a member of your family. Real appreciation can only develop over time. Appreciation develops when your adult child realizes these things did not come easily or naturally. Also, your grade schooler or adolescent begins to appreciate the opportunities she has in relation to other children who have less.
As your children’s lives expand from their involvement with the family to involvements with other groups, they gradually learn certain rights are inherent in membership in these groups. For example, they learn they have rights at school, such as the right to have teacher help with problems or the right to materials and supplies. They learn they have certain rights within relationships.
It is very important you actively help your child learn about her rights as an individual, as a family member, as a member of other groups, as a member of the community. For example, if your grade schooler is refused a turn at bat because others won’t let her, you might say, “If I were you, I would not play ball with them anymore if they are not going to let me have a turn at bat.” Or you might suggest she say, “I have a right to a turn at bat and insist you let me have my turn.” If your adolescent says, “I asked my math teacher to help with a problem and he said I should already know how to do it and he did not have time to help me,” you might suggest she go back to the teacher and say, “Maybe I should know how to do this problem, but I do not. It is important to me to learn how to work these types of problems and I think you should help me. When can you arrange a time?” In this situation, your adolescent is asserting her right to receive help from the teacher, and in a firm yet reasonable way. Or if your adolescent wants to use the family car, discuss the issue of her right to the car instead of arguing about family rules.
As you consider your children and their rights, being sure your teens are aware of their rights and insist on them in dating and other similar situations is important. Your adolescent has a right to be treated with gentleness and respect, not to be mistreated, a right to not be coerced or pressured to do things he (or she) does not want to do, or be given ultimatums or threatened. (Also, each right has its reciprocal responsibility, e.g., to be gentle, to be respectful, and so on.) You may be tempted to assume your youngster already knows this; but it is another one of those conversations you and your child need to have and like drug use, driving and drinking, sexual behavior, and other things, is a topic you need to come back to from time to time.
Other rights frequently at issue within families include rights to privacy, including telephone conversations, the sanctity of rooms or things, rights to express opinions, rights to family resources such as money or food, rights to loving relationships, to who watches what television program, how loud the stereo can be played, and on and on. While your children learn to respect the rights of others, they also are learning how to responsibly assert their own rights. To use an old expression, they are learning to stick up for themselves.
The notion of responsibilities is closely related to the idea of rights. As your children become aware of their rights, they also learn the rights of others need to be assured. Your grade schooler has a new puppy and you tell him he is responsible for feeding the puppy. The puppy then has a right to be fed. Your adolescent has a right to access to the family car. Other family members have a right to expect the car will be used with care. If your adolescent respects the rights of other family members and other drivers, he is then a responsible driver. Family members have a right to an orderly home. Each family member, thus, has a responsibility to help keep the house neat.
Your children learn about responsibilities through relationships and seeing other people behave responsibly. In part, your children learn to be responsible through active teaching by you and other adults. Your children also learn about responsibility through discussions about the rights of others. Yes, your children learn from life experience, but they also need to have the ideas of rights and responsibilities explained and re- explained from a very young age.
Are your children too young to have responsibilities when they are only two or three years old? This is, in fact, a very good age to learn to respect the rights of others. If emphasis on rights and responsibilities is gently initiated at a very young age, it will not be much of a problem as your children get older.
Teaching your children about rights and responsibilities can be overdone. Your children can assert their rights so frequently they actually alienate everyone. Similarly, your child may become somewhat compulsive about doing what is right. In either situation, you have gone too far and should back off a little. The criteria of reasonableness, appropriateness, and effectiveness governs your involvement with your children as you teach them about rights and responsibilities.