Why are we always passing the buck?
There is no sense of personal responsibility any more and this can have devastating consequences, particularly when it comes to parenting
Published 31/05/2010 | 05:00
WALKING down a city street one day, my teenage daughter and I overtake a severely overweight family. The mother, the older daughter -- a girl in her teens -- and the youngest child, a little girl of primary-school age, are all extremely obese.
Twenty years ago, I think, this would have stopped the traffic. Now it's an everyday sight. And it's not good.
My daughter knows what I'm thinking. Don't be so judgmental, she upbraids me.
"It's not their fault. They probably don't know very much about the right kind of food."
Everybody is responsible for themselves, I insist.
That mother, I say bluntly, is responsible not only for her own unhealthy condition but also for that of her daughters.
As a result of her negligence, I point out, both of those girls are not only facing a lifetime of misery and discomfort, but are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, which can lead to blindness, kidney failure and heart disease. My daughter is incensed.
"How can you be so cruel?" she asks, "she's not doing it on purpose."
But is that really a sufficient excuse?
Although today's no-blame culture, which has instilled the belief that we cannot be held responsible for any aspect of our lives, may be particularly evident in healthcare, it's endemic throughout society.
"Irish culture is in crisis on many levels. I feel we're lacking a sense of personal responsibility on an individual basis and it manifests everywhere," says Christine Clear, director of The Living Room, a place of contemplation funded by the Carmelite Community on Clarendon Street, Dublin.
Ms Clear has organised a series of talks on the theme of 'Taking Ownership -- Exploring a Radical Sense of Responsibility' at the Living Room which runs through May and June.
The talks, which feature psychiatrist Ivor Brown, and David Korowitz, human systems ecologist and executive at the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, look at the issue of personal responsibility in different ways.
Lack of responsibility, says Ms Clear, has led to apathy and a passivism in modern society.
"That can stretch from parents not taking enough responsibility for the diet of their obese child to planning decisions which leave people in very disconnected housing estates or at the mercy of homes prone to flooding."
Responsibility starts from within, she says. Before making a responsible decision, she believes, a person must reflect on their choices to determine whether they answer four crucial questions:
Is what I do good for me, good for you, good for us and good for them?
"It's very hard to be fully responsible if you're not giving your decisions enough weight. If you're not considering them, you're abdicating responsibility."
Psychologist Patricia Murray agrees that there is a growing tendency for people to delegate responsibility for themselves to the broader society.
"People are choosing not to use the power they have," she says.
Parents have power over their children, but many won't use it, she says. Then when the child experiences problems or exhibits anti-social behaviour it's everyone's fault but that of the parent.
"They say it's the State's fault, or the fault of the school or they will medicalise it and decide the child has ADHD.
"Parents are afraid to use their power to insist on a healthy diet or a healthy attitude. Parents see their child saying cruel things about another adult or child and they don't correct them anymore. They shrug their shoulders and say 'oh, all young people are like that now.'"
This lack of responsibility results in a lack of leadership, believes Murray.
"There should be a real leadership in parenting but you have to take responsibility to be a leader. You have to say 'this is the way to go.'"
Many people nowadays don't realise that an important part of parenting is influencing and leading children, she says.
"Some parents act like the child is an independent operator in the same way an adult is. For example, they'll say 'oh she will only wear blue' or 'oh she only eats chicken nuggets'.
"I link that approach into problems like anti-social behaviour, violence and obesity."
Parents must ensure that children know certain behaviours are not acceptable, she warns.
"It's not enough to do nothing and look the other way or to blame somebody else. That is what parents are doing. You have to extinguish behaviour and the way you do it is not subtle. You do it by ensuring there is some suffering for not behaving properly."
Parenting is about values and responsibility but some parents don't take responsibility for broader issues like social and psychological wellbeing, she says, adding that this is the root of many modern social problems, from street crime to aggression, unemployability and obesity.
Part of the problem today is that the traditional sense of personal responsibility has been overcome by an overwhelming sense of entitlement, says Dr Patrick Ryan, director of the doctoral programme in clinical psychology at the University of Limerick.
For example, says Dr Ryan, nowadays if someone is ill as a result of lifestyle reasons, it's a case of what can the doctor or the HSE do about it, rather than what the patient can do to help himself or herself. For example, by exercising and having a better diet.
"In the last 20 years, we have become very led by a sense of entitlement. I think that makes us feel a bit helpless because it seems that 'I expect others to do for me and that I should be provided for.'
"If my teenager is acting out it's about the teacher who doesn't help or the long waiting list to see a HSE psychologist or the lack of sufficient gardai on the street."
However, he says, the harsh fact is that a parent has to work to produce a happy, balanced teenager. "The notion of individual responsibility is at odds with the increasingly common notion of entitlement."
Individual responsibility, Dr Ryan believes, is about having a moral motivation, a desire to live a life that is of benefit to oneself and others.
"There is also the need for a moral sensitivity, which is about being aware of how your decisions affect yourself and particularly others," he says.
Over the past two decades, however, he believes Irish people have become more individualistic and more materialistic and in line with this shift we have let our social conscience fall dormant.
"The biggest example is when you get parents bringing teenagers along to psychologists and saying 'will you please fix them.'
"They're handing over the responsibility to another person. They blame everyone: the gardai, the teacher, the school, and they struggle to see how they have contributed to their half of the relationship with the teenager."
As a culture, and a society, he says, we are quick to delegate responsibility.
"If you look at things in Irish culture, the tribunals and inquiries, the question is how often do ministers or politicians here resign when they are caught doing something? Not much in Ireland but quite frequently in the UK.
"We are much more likely as a society of individuals to disperse responsibility outwards, away from ourselves.
According to one expert, though, the time is fast approaching when we will be forced to once again shoulder a sense of personal responsibility.
David Korowitz, physicist, human systems ecologist and executive at the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, says it's only a matter of time before we're forced to recognise the need for a sustainable living system.
Every aspect of our economy exists within nature, and, when our natural resources run dry -- as they inevitably will -- the economy will crash, says Korowitz.
"For the moment, our most critical issue is energy. Our global economy needs energy to function."
We're in for a major shock, he says.
"We are about to get hit as our energy flows start dropping rapidly. The energy will not be there." As a result, he says, the global economy will begin to contract and so will our individual world view.
"About 100 years ago, the people who lived around us in a town or village would have been critically important to our welfare."
However, he explains, as our societies became more affluent, individuals needed the local community less and less. When we no longer required that direct community support, our sense of responsibility towards those around us weakened and we began to shift it on to government and institutions.
"Now responsibility is privatised or at government level or through the market, such as health insurance. We have started to experience a feeling of entitlement, such as a right to healthcare, or a right to a pension."
As he sees it, we will have to start taking responsibility for many of the services we currently expect from government and other institutions.
"I think our pensions are going to vanish and our health service is going to undergo a major collapse. I think we're going into an age where the government will not be able to produce things that we would reasonably expect and we have to start accepting that.
"We must understand what is happening and take responsibility for it, and assume leadership," he says.
And while we mightn't need our neighbours now, we may soon.
"We are going to be forced to start looking at what we can do in conjunction with those around us to effectively take responsibility for the basic conditions that support our own welfare in local communities.
"We must start to assume leadership within communities and understand the issues which underpin our basic existence."
On Friday June 4 David Korowicz will speak at The Living Room on the topic: 'Creating a Sustainable Living System' at 7.15pm. For further information contact The Living Room at 087 7837421