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The Key to Raising Responsible Adults

One of the most important points my dad and I discuss in our book, Smart Money Smart Kids, is the importance of raising responsible adults.

In this excerpt from the book, I discuss how one of the greatest gifts my parents ever gave me was preparing me for adulthood.

By now, I hope you’ve seen that my parents always tried to keep a balance between enforcing strict rule-following and allowing personal responsibility. They worked hard to give us the freedom to make our own decisions while still keeping us within the boundaries they set for us. They didn’t do it perfectly every time, but I know the guidance they provided has been invaluable to my siblings and me.

One way Mom and Dad continually maintained a balance between grace and legalism was through the analogy of the rope. The Ramsey kids heard about the rope all the time. Our parents described it this way: “Picture an imaginary rope tied around your waist. I am holding the other end of the rope. The length of the rope is entirely up to me. A longer rope means you have more freedom to explore and make decisions, and a shorter rope means I have to rein you in a bit due to trust or behavioral issues.”

For example, think about dropping your twelve-year-old daughter off at the movie theater. You tell her to stay inside the theater and that you’ll be back in two hours to pick her up at that exact spot. When you come back to pick her up two hours later, she is nowhere to be found. You call her and find out she’s across the street at the ice cream shop because she and her friends decided not to see a movie. So what happens? She loses some rope. You have to pull her back in a bit because she made a bad choice and didn’t call to ask permission. Now, imagine your teenager is at a high school party where adult beverages are flowing. If he calls you, tells you what’s going on, and asks you to come pick him up, then guess what? He just earned more rope because he showed the ability to make good decisions.

Kids want to be treated like adults. I used to say that to my parents all the time, and Dad always answered, “If you want to be treated like an adult, then act like an adult. Show me I can trust you, and I will.” And Mom and Dad always followed through with that, giving me more freedom when I showed them I was worthy of their trust. Sure, there were times when they had to pull the rope back in because I made bad choices—there will always be a little back and forth—but you want the goal to be a nice, long rope by the time your kids leave home.

My sister, Denise, was the first Ramsey child to head off to college. Her last night in the house, Mom cooked a delicious family dinner and we all sat around the dining room table, laughing, crying, and telling stories about Denise. If you were just listening in, you would have thought we were at a funeral—but no, she was only moving a few hours away. As the night was winding down, Dad left the room and came back carrying a big gift bag. He sat down, reached in the bag, and pulled out a beautiful loop of thick, white rope. There were smaller ribbons woven into the rope, each one a different color.

He said, “Denise, your mom and I are so proud of you and the woman you’ve become. But starting tonight, things will be a little different.” Then he explained what the different colored ribbons meant. There was a red ribbon signifying her academics, purple for her spiritual walk, white for her purity, green for her ability to handle money, orange for the University of Tennessee, and yellow as a reminder that she could always come home. When he was finished, Dad said, “Denise, we trust you. You make great decisions. You’re going to be two hundred and fifty miles away, and that means we can’t hold the other end of the rope anymore.” He paused, put the rope in Denise’s hands, and said, “Honey, tonight we’re giving you the rope.” It was sweet and, sure, a little cheesy, but it was a powerful moment for all of us.

Several weeks later, on Parent Weekend at UT, we all visited Denise in her dorm room. Dad was shocked to see the rope hanging on her doorknob. When he asked about it, Denise said, “Oh, Dad, the rope is a legend. Girls come from all over the dorm to hear the story of the rope. They love it!”

As we were driving back to Nashville, Mom and Dad were talking about how shocked they were that the rope had made such a strong impact on Denise. I chimed in from the backseat and said, “It’s not just Denise. That meant a lot to Daniel and me too.”

Growing up, I didn’t really understand the significance every time Mom and Dad mentioned the rope. Looking back, however, I realize that my childhood was a twenty-year lesson in responsibility. They were preparing us all along to be wise, trustworthy adults. They knew we would be heading into an enormous responsibility some day. And no, I’m not talking about what they may or may not leave us when they’re gone. I’m talking about the responsibility every child will face someday: adulthood. Every child will one day be an adult, making his or her own decisions and taking responsibility for his or her own life. Whether they win or lose, whether they’re broke or wealthy, whether they’re successful or miserable, it’s up to them. As a parent, you’re preparing your children to make the decisions that will determine the kind of life they’ll have as adults.

Learn more life and money tips in my latest book, Love Your Life, Not Theirs!

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  • Ben

    This is awesome! Our first child will be here very soon and I am taking this to heart. Thank you to you and your dad for providing such a positive influence to us all.

  • beckie

    what a great lesson …or lessons:-) Thank you!

  • Bonita12

    Really enjoyed this!

  • New mom

    Love it. So true! As a mom of a 7 months old, I can see how my parents even though using different “symbolism” trained my brothers and I to become a responsible adult. We can now enjoy the fruit of hard labor as family. I too plan to teach our kids those things that will help them become people of purpose, that live well, enjoy life and follow principles. Thank you for sharing. You inspire others to follow their passion by sharing yours.

  • Sallye Barnes

    Our oldest will head off to college in a couple of years. We haven’t used a rope analogy but operate our household in a similar manner. Can’t wait to share this. Thanks, Rachel!

  • Rev. Alan Dixon

    Wish I would have thought of some clever way to impress my sons on responsibility. They grew up to be the best men and fathers, but it was not thanks to me. S. Dixon (their mom)