Navigating the complexities of responsibility

Mrs Anne Stubbington, Head of Hirschfeld House

Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs. — Joan Didion (1968)

I have had the pleasure and privilege of being a Head of House at Brisbane Girls Grammar for twenty years, and one of my responsibilities at the end of each year is writing Testimonials. This is a task that I always enjoy, as I reflect on the journey that the young women in Year 12 Hirschfeld have taken during their time at Girls Grammar. Memories of how each one has risen to inevitable challenges and crises, and managed her disappointments and achievements, all inform how each girl has mapped out her own personal pathway. Something I always notice is the level of responsibility that a student has taken so far for her own life and the level of responsibility that she has accepted within the School community. This is a measure of maturity and character. Added to which, those able to take responsibility for their own lives have usually acquired healthy reserves of humility, resilience and good humour.


Responsibility is the cornerstone of our relationships, our community and of our democratic society. We come to know that there are laws and rules, and checks and balances, to remind us of the difference between right and wrong. As we grow within the family, we absorb the lessons of transgression and gradually assume the self-discipline and sense of responsibility that leads to most of us living our lives in reasonably peaceful harmony with others. Responsibility means respecting the rights of others, being able to make decisions, keeping our commitments, honouring our promises, and not blaming others for our own mistakes.

Easier said than done, unless our elders and mentors take the time and trouble to teach us what these concepts mean or unless we have excellent role models to show us the way. Social researcher Hugh Mackay (2013) says that parents have the vital job of nurturing a sense of what he calls ‘charity’ in the very young — ‘how to be kind, generous, respectful and compassionate towards others’. In other words, responsibility rarely comes naturally. It is something which has to be taught and measured against the consequences of selfishness.

The House is the family unit within the School. This is where the student is held in a safe and secure environment, where problems are contained without spinning out of control and where the adolescent can practise becoming a responsible adult. Girls mature into young women as they learn from their mistakes, learn to use their own voice, become brave, and develop the resilience and good humour that will inform their future potential for responsibility and leadership. There are democratically elected positions of responsibility within the House available from Year 8 onwards that provide them with training wheels, right up to the position of House Captain in Year 12. One of the tasks of adolescence is the separation from parents, the need to change from being a totally dependent child both emotionally and physically, into an adult who can be responsible for herself. Again, Hugh Mackay (2013) points out: ‘Children are likely to struggle when confronted by the demands of independence if they have been cosseted in a state of prolonged dependency and fed a rich diet of self-esteem-boosting praise.’


Another task of adolescence is to secure healthy and life-promoting relationships with peers. Sometimes in this time of transition the friendship group takes on an intensity which can transcend the value of the adult world and provide a shield of invincibility for the members until individuals feel confident to strike out on their own again. House activities and obligations, the House party to welcome the Year 8s, the breakfasts, the Interhouse competitions and House meetings all help to give students a sense of self-perspective and connectedness, and to help them develop varied and meaningful relationships. Ultimately, the maturing adolescent comes to realise that she has a responsibility to herself and to the community, a mind of her own and her own place in the world. As Brisbane Girls Grammar alumna Melinda Taylor said in her recent Valedictory Address to Year 12 students: ‘It is important to know yourself and to accept responsibility for your own actions.’

As responsible adults, we have to make sure that we offer appropriate experiences and have appropriate expectations of young people. Academic and pop-culture expert Karen Brooks (2013) expands on this and suggests that that we need to trust young people with hard choices. In a discussion about raising the legal drinking age to 21 to address the risk behaviour of binge drinking, violent and promiscuous behaviour, road accidents and trauma, she comments that, while this is concerning:

Here we are, not only seeking to postpone the onset of personal responsibility for young adults who in other areas are deemed ‘adult’ enough to make life-changing decisions, but there is a sense in which we are prolonging adolescence by endorsing young people’s inability to suffer (or enjoy) the consequences of their actions and choices…. Something appears awry when we allow young people access to the adult world in some areas and seek to deny it in others. Exposed to violent imagery and sexualised concepts on a daily basis through pop culture, and encouragement to interact in cyberspace with friends and even strangers, we are allowing young teens to enter the adult world before they are cognitively prepared.

So, on the one hand we have children being exploited by commercial interests, while on the other we are seeking to delay the access of older teens to adulthood. Difficult though it may be, as parents and teachers, we have a responsibility to get the balance right.

There are significant activities within the curriculum that are designed to strengthen healthy social and emotional development, most notably, the Service programme. Within a School-wide focus on Service, the Year 10 programme expects each student in the cohort to negotiate her own placement and contribute a minimum of fifteen hours of her own time for the benefit of others. The Year 10 students of 2013 have met this challenge well and have demonstrated a high level of responsibility. Community Service is an integral part of our curricular and co-curricular programmes. While the community benefits from our fundraising, time, energy and involvement, the students develop a deep awareness of those in need and a positive sense of community. As a result, during this important phase of their intellectual, social and emotional development, they develop a more complete sense of self.


Service nurtures an ethos of social responsibility and self-respect, and provides a wonderful opportunity for students to learn what personal growth and responsibility is about. And this is the point: students can only take the opportunity to be responsible if they are allowed to. Reflections from Year 10 girls on their service experience that are worth sharing follow.

Madeleine Gandhi, 10 0’Connor – 25th International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI) at The University of Queensland:

While volunteering at the IOI, there was a great emphasis on responsibility for yourself and your team. The gravity of the potential scenarios you could be responsible for varied from unintentionally offending someone from another culture, letting your contestants sleep in and miss a meal or even an exam, someone getting lost and being stranded without a mobile phone, or calling the wrong person in an emergency. Being responsible for six foreigners living in separate accommodation on a huge campus you barely knew your way around and who were eager to catch public transport and explore the city at night time, was certainly nerve-wracking. However, having coped with these mammoth responsibilities and watched others deal with even greater ones, I feel very proud of the way they led us from being shy and nervous at the start of the week to confident and competent by the end. 

Estelle Peatey-Sah, 10 Beanland – The McIntyre Centre providing riding programmes for people with a disability:

I feel that helping at the McIntyre Centre was really good for my confidence. As there were so few staff, the ones that were there were often busy and never had time to tell us to do every single thing required. I learned to trust myself more and act on my instinctive feelings of what should be done rather than worry about whether it is ‘right’. I have often found in School that I struggle with this and feel the need to have things checked before doing them. While this could be seen as a good thing, some have said I do need to trust myself.

Bronte Jackson, 10 Hirschfeld – Wesley Mission Parkview aged care residence:

Community Service not only allows us to develop a sense of responsibility in a work environment, but it also helps us understand the importance of responsibility to a person. In particular as I worked in an aged care facility, I had at least two or three people each week counting on my visits and I needed to make sure I didn’t let them down.

Meera Prasad, 10 O’Connor – Vital Connection soup kitchen for the homeless:

I see everything from new a perspective. I have become a lot more appreciative of the things I have, for example, dinner on the table every night and a good education. I think the exposure we had to the real-life problems of homelessness has made us stronger as girls and has boosted our maturity level by a long way. We have now seen the reality of the world and hope that we have been able to do something to help the situation.

Madeleine Farr, 10 Mackay – Red Hill Special School:

This incredible experience taught me a great number of things which will stay with me my whole life. One very valued skill which I developed through this experience was responsibility. Through helping to care for children who were not at the level of other children their age, it meant there was more responsibility on me to help them do everyday things, which many of us take for granted. Caring for young children with various conditions taught me to step up, and made me realise how much I could help them with their everyday lives, improving my sense of responsibility significantly.

And, finally, I received this correspondence from the 2007 School Service Captain Stephanie Carter recently:

If you remember, I did refugee tutoring at Moorooka State School and one of the girls that we met during these few weeks was Matu Bordolo, a 10-year-old girl who had come to Australia as a Liberian refugee, straight from a refugee camp. Over the past eight years, I have maintained communication and a lovely friendship with Matu and yesterday she had her 19th birthday! It has been so wonderful to watch her grow into a young lady — from meeting her at Moorooka, to watching her graduate, become a star hip hop dancer, achieve an OP 7 (wow!), and start a Bachelor of Psychology at Griffith University. I thank you for encouraging us all to participate in the Year 10 Community Service programme, as the relationships and connections that we form can help shape our future career aspirations (as it did for me). I’m sure Matu has great things ahead of her.

In these times of predators who seek to take advantage of the young, and pressure from a competitive society to perform, we have to be very careful not to be over-protective or to do too much for our children. We cannot be, nor should we try to be, perfect parents. Ground-breaking thinker, paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1953) wrote that every child needs a ‘good-enough’ parent and, even then, as long as a child has at least one good person in her life, parent or otherwise, who really cares, then they will thrive. Stephanie’s story about Matu seems to underscore that point. As parents and teachers, we need to love our children, care for them and teach them; but we need to let them take responsibility for their own lives. We cannot do it for them.


Brooks, K. (2013, May 27). Trust young people with hard choices. The Courier-Mail.

Didion, J. (1968). Slouching towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Mackay, H. (2013). The good life. Sydney: MacMillan.

Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34, 89–97.

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