I learned that there is a difference between teaching our children responsibility and making them our servants. One evening while sitting in someone's home for a meeting I noticed their twelve year old daughter making a phone call that was clearly for her mother. When she finished that call, her mother asked her to make one more call. When I concluded my meeting, I asked the mother why her daughter was making these phone calls. She answered that she thought this helps teach the child responsibility. I told the mother that from what I could see, unless she suffers from a language barrier and is therefore unable to make the call, if she asks a child to make a call that is clearly for herself the only thing that she has taught her child is how to transfer responsibility.

After this encounter I did an unofficial study by asking the children who come into my office for counseling how they feel when their parents give them responsibilities. The result of my "scientific study" was that, for most children, the way they felt depended upon the circumstances. The children told me that when their parents asked them to do different tasks — make a phone call, go to the store, etc. — and that task was for the sake of the child or for the family as a whole, it taught the child responsibility. When the task was clearly for the parent's own convenience, the children felt used and it taught transference of responsibility. In the future, these children just learned to ask their younger siblings to do tasks for them. The experience had taught them that the older and stronger have permission to exploit the younger and weaker.

From my conversations with these children I was able to break the "responsibility vs. slavery" issue into three parts. Firstly, when a child is asked to do something for the household, if everyone takes part in it then the child will not feel used. For example, if there's a party and you ask each child to give up some time and do something, then it's regarded as a common effort. Even when it's mundane household chores, if they are split with some calculation a child will generally do them without resentment. For example, if the boys and girls in the family are on different school schedules, and the boys help when they are home and the girls do their share when they're available, then children can sense a fairness and won't complain.

Secondly, it's important to make children feel that they're not just givers but also receivers of the aid that they are expected to contribute. For example, when you ask an older child to help the smaller children with homework, you can also promise the older child that you'll help him with his school work when the younger children are in bed and the house is quieter. This teaches the child that the stronger help the weaker and the bigger help the smaller.

Thirdly, parents need to treat their children as children — not as spouse replacements. A woman can't say, "my husband comes home late and can't help me, so my teenagers will help me parent instead." Many years ago when fathers went off to war or to work away from home they would tell their young child that "you are now the man of the house" and "take care of your mother." A six year old couldn't handle that kind of responsibility. Neither can a 16 year old today. A parent asking and expecting a child to do an adult's job is taking advantage.

None of this negates the fact that we can expect our children to help out in times of crisis — in times of sickness, pregnancy, or tragedy, G‑d forbid. But even at times like this, when a parent feels the need to give extra responsibility to a child, it should not be done by dictating but rather as a request and with explanation. A parent can tell the child, "I know it's not your responsibility, but this is the help we need now." It's a chessed — a kindness — for the child to help the parent.

In conclusion, when we ask our children to help with something we must ask ourselves two questions: 1) Whose job am I asking the child to do? 2) Am I giving the child this job to teach responsibility, or am I shirking my own responsibility? A parent that can answer these two questions by honestly saying that they are doing it for the child's sake will indeed be teaching their child responsibility.