Balancing Rights and Responsibilities

We construct our relationships by having an understanding with the other. In many circumstances this understanding simply arises without much thought on our part. At other times we carefully construct agreements. A central aspect of these understandings has to do with the ways we balance rights and responsibilities. This balancing is essential for stable relationships. When relationships are out of balance they feel oppressive.

So that one person does not overpower another, and so that we can be clear about how we distribute power, we construct agreements about how we will balance rights and responsibilities in our relationships. The term rights and the term responsibilities are ones that have many and varied meanings, so let's start by clarifying just what we mean by them.

In general, a right is something I think I can expect is coming to me. It may be a human right that I have (or should have) along with every other human simply because we are human. Or it may be a civil right that I have (or should have) because I am a citizen of the community. For our purposes we are talking about earned rights. These are privileges that fall to us because of the efforts we have made to fulfill a responsibility.

There are four different understandings for the term responsibility we explore in the next chapter but, for now, let's focus on the 3° [Interpersonal-relational: perception] definition which relates to the responsibilities we construct in forming understandings with others. When I enter into an agreement with the gas company to have them supply my apartment with natural gas, I am responsible for paying the bill and they are responsible for keeping the gas coming and reading the meter accurately. They have a right to get paid and I have a right to use the gas. Our rights and responsibilities balance each other.

If I want the right to drive a car I have to be responsible in many areas. I have to buy a car, maintain the car, insure the car, have a driver's license, and drive safely enough to keep it. It is only when I meet all of these responsibilities that I can trust that I maintain the right to drive a car.

When we are in relationships in which we have lots of responsibilities and not many rights, we begin to feel oppressed. If I am expected to create certain results in my job but I haven't been given the tools or the time to create those results, I am likely to begin to feel that the job is oppressive to me. If, on the other hand I find that I have many rights and few responsibilities, I am likely to feel privileged. If this continues I may begin to expect this is my lot and feel entitled. But, when this happens, I am not covering my share of the responsibilities and someone else is getting oppressed.

Maintaining a balance of rights and responsibilities is essential to constructing and preserving healthy relationships. In some relationships this is a simple matter of knowing the rules. If I want to get gas from the pump to fill my tank, I have to pay for it. But in other relationships the rules always seem to be changing. This is especially true in the relationships we construct with our children.

When our children are young they have few rights and few responsibilities. As they grow older they get more and more of both. In fact, it is our job as parents to support them in growing into adults who are fully responsible for themselves and to fully exercise their rights. As little children they may not have the right to cross the street without holding our hand until they show that they are responsible to look both ways. As grade school kids they may not have the right to go play at a friend's house until they show that they are responsible to call when they get there and to come home in time for dinner.

Throughout their lives they are always pressing for more and more rights and it is our job to be sure that they don't get them without also being more and more responsible. When we allow our children to have the rights without having to show they are responsible, or when they show that they are not responsible and we don't respond by removing the rights, we are spoiling them. They "go bad" when they think they have a right to privileges they have not earned, when they begin to think that they are entitled.

On the other hand, if we expect our children to be responsible but then we don't extend to them the rights they have earned, we are leading them to feel bitter and hopeless and to expect a life without promise. We teach them to expect less than the best for themselves. Parenting is a balancing act where try to be sure we are treating our children with respect by extending to them the rights they have earned but by not allowing them to avoid the responsibilities that fall to them. This balance point is a continually moving target.

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