I keep hearing the phrase “Take responsibility for yourself. Don’t take it for others.” I’ve heard it spoken with such conviction that at times I’ve wondered if looking out for others is somehow wrong.
My stance on accepting responsibility for another person is more nuanced than simply labeling it good or bad. There is a kind of responsibility for others that is vital to human flourishing. There is another that is destructive. Let’s explore the difference.
A piano teacher’s responsibility
My 8-year-old daughter’s piano teacher fired her as a student. My kid had arrived late to a couple of appointments and acted disrespectfully once or twice – or maybe more. I don’t really know.
Sensing the teacher’s growing frustration, my wife sent a text trying to preserve the relationship. The response was, “This isn’t working for me. Find another teacher.” Ouch.
My young daughter’s teacher no longer accepted responsibility for her instruction. I don’t blame her for it, but I do wish she had given us another chance. We would’ve recommitted to arriving on time and practiced treating adults with respect.
When I think of good responsibility, I imagine a dedicated piano teacher working with young people. Could my 8-year-old learn how to play the piano by banging around on the keyboard every day for hours? Perhaps. Would my daughter grow more quickly with competent guidance? Absolutely.
A piano teacher’s job is not to turn every student into a virtuoso, but she does bear responsibility to instruct, correct, and encourage. Instructors foster incremental progress.
Attributes of good responsibility for others
As piano teachers mentor others, so should we strive to care for those around us. We cannot achieve our full potential without caring people willing to raise us up. And if we are willing to step up and accept responsibility for others, there are those who will become more and get there faster than they would otherwise.
The challenge is to take on the right kind of responsibility for those you care about. With good responsibility for other people, you:
- Strive to help others in areas where they cannot help themselves
- (In situations where they can help themselves) Help them grow at a faster rate than they would on their own
- Learn life stories, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses so that you can know how best to help
- Are willing to do what they need to progress instead of what they want
- Practice gentle influence instead of compulsion
- Allow them to reciprocate and care for you in other areas of life
- Expect to share in their joy when they succeed and sadness when they fall short
We will fail in our attempts to help, and our students will miss the mark too. If we can hope to be of some use though, we should carry on in our attempts to help anyway.
Attributes of bad responsibility for others
There are understandable reasons why some say you should never take responsibility for another person. Individuals who accept the wrong brand of responsibility make themselves and their charges miserable.
If you take on bad responsibility for other people, you:
- Prevent them from growing by taking over what they can do for themselves1
- Accept more responsibility than you can deliver on
- Feel responsibility for their emotions (You cannot make someone happy all the time)2
- Take accountability for their outcomes (They bear ultimate responsibility for whether they learn to play the instrument, win or lose the championship, stay together or get divorced)
- Blame yourself if your charges are failing or not progressing
- Help them avoid the consequences of their behavior
- Give up your autonomy (Just because you care for them does not mean you do whatever they want)
Final thoughts on caring for others
Good responsibility is a healthy form of love. It is a skill that we could spend more than one lifetime cultivating. And there is only so much we can learn of responsibility without experimenting with it. We can experience the joy of having obligations to others as we become teachers, coaches, supervisors, elders, mentors, or parents.
I am grateful for those who saw something worthy in me and took me under their wing. I hope to do the same for others.
And if you want to learn more about responsibility, consider ordering a copy of my new book A Worthwhile Life. The book covers who we should take care of, how to scale back when responsibilities become overwhelming, what happens when others look out for us, and how accepting responsibility impacts the meaning you find in life.