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20 Practical Ways to Foster Responsibility and Independence in Your 21st Century Boy

My great-grandfather gave my grandfather his first rifle, a single-shot .22, for his eighth Christmas. Age nine earned Grandpa full responsibility over the family’s 80 x 150 ft. vegetable garden. By age 10, Grandpa was taking his flat-bottomed rowboat out on the Mississippi.  These are great experiences for a young man, and they lead to creativity, toughness, and a host of other wonderful traits, perhaps most important among which are independence and responsibility. Risk free? No. Positive for my grandfather and his descendents? Absolutely.

Sadly, many of these experiences just aren’t in the cards for a 21st century Washingtonian boy; at least not routinely. There is, however, much that we can do to foster responsibility and independence in our sons and we asked our faculty to share their ideas you. Here, in this blog post, are the ideas that your faculty shared with us via email.  Modern technology put to service of good ole’ fashion values.

  1. Don’t bring to school any items (food, sports clothing or equipment) that your son may have forgotten in the morning.
  2. Allow your son to fail or get hurt while under your supervision. Have consequences for his choices and actions. All of these thing are going to happen, wouldn’t you rather have them happen earlier and while in your care rather than on his own. Don’t bail him out without a full understanding of what took place and how that will not be the case later in life.
  3. If your high-school-age son is being picked up from school, metro, or anywhere else in your car for a drive that would take 20 or 30 minutes to walk, stop doing it.  That’s a great chance for him to grow.  Especially for those guys who are 20-30 minutes walking distance from The Heights (i.e., who aren’t walking home in the dark; it’s usually broad daylight).  If you take us up on this one, please tell your boy to stash (or better, dispose of) the headphones–he’s better off taking in the day, thinking, and paying attention to traffic.
  4. Household chores in general (cooking, cleaning, lawnwork) are a good source of independence, especially if you let your son screw it up.  And rather than fixing it for him if he screws up, tell him how to fix it and make him go back to get it right on his own.  Independence is tied to responsibility.
  5. Have a vegetable garden and give your son responsibility for some of the family produce.
  6. Do not try to bail him out of detentions–let him figure it out.  And make sure that he understands that an inconvenience for him is an inconvenience for the family.  Relatedly, make sports take a back seat to academics.
  7. Let him forget his lunchbox three times and he won’t forget it again!
  8. On an assigned school day, have him make breakfast for the family.
  9. Laundry, laundry and more laundry! A third grader should learn how to soak his sports/gym clothing if needed, and of course, know how to use the washer and dryer.
  10. Alarm clock.  Does he wake up and show up in the kitchen ready for breakfast on his own?
  11. Teach your son to ask the right persons for help when he needs it.  He will need to do this to succeed.  Don’t deprive him of the opportunity now.
  12. Gradually ask your boys to start pitching in for expenses like clothes and athletic gear.  Sure, those $200 cleats are nice, but how about you buy the basic $50 pair and junior makes up the difference?
  13. Bike rides.  High school is a great age to explore the trails that take an adventurous soul all over our city on two wheels.
  14. Hike to Georgia:  kidding… sort of.  The Appalachian Trail is an adventure in our back yard.  Again, high schoolers are old enough–so long as they have the requisite maturity–to tackle sections of it on their own.
  15. Let your son talk to his own teachers about grades and homework issues.
  16. Have your son shop for (with parent’s $$ of course), prepare, and serve the family dinner once a month (or however often). It get’s them thinking about how much their Mom (or Dad) puts into this on a regular basis, makes them appreciate it even more.  It also gives them the experience of planning ahead and eating on a budget.
  17. Stop paying your son an allowance.  Make him earn his spending cash by paying a set commission for a variety of chores.  Start at five cents for your three year old making his bed; move on to whatever you think is appropriate for your high schooler chopping wood.  Allowance is a handout.  Earning is reality.
  18. Kick your younger boys out of the house when they are bored, fighting, or complaining. They’ll figure out a pastime soon enough.
  19. When your boy complains about a classmate, don’t call the teacher in front of him and definitely don’t tell your son that he’s a victim of bullying.  Maybe it’s true, but a victim mentality is easy to develop and hard to overcome.  Instead, tell your son how to handle the situation.  Maybe this includes coaching your boy through talking to a teacher.  In tough cases, never hesitate to call the teacher in private and let him know that you son has something important to talk to him about.  When the issue is resolved, your son will believe that he took care of business.  It’s a good feeling, and he’ll chase it in the future.
  20. And the winner for most frequently emailed suggestion:  LET YOUR SON FAIL.  You best serve him by letting it happen, and helping him learn from it.  Obviously, there are exceptions, but one day without a lacrosse stick, or gym shorts, or a homework assignment won’t devastate his future.  In fact, it will make it better.

Not a Heights teacher (though I think he’d like the place), here’s what Winston Churchill had to offer:  “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

About the Author

Rich Moss


Rich is the Director of The Heights Forum and the Director of Admissions at The Heights School.

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