Taking Responsibility

The Story of The Three Little Girls has generated a great deal of conversation (on and off line) about the role parents play in getting their children to take responsibility. More than one parent has talked to me about the difficulty of trying to be fair and listen to both sides of a conflict.

While it is true that each party in a conflict usually bears some responsibility, our job as parents and educators is to teach children how to take full responsibility for their actions. Otherwise, they can give themselves a pass, and not do the hard work of learning new behavior. They can’t control what other people do, but they can gain mastery of self.

I like to use a trip to the principal’s office as a place where students can learn those new behaviors and develop their social skills. When a student is sent to my office for disrespectful behavior the conversation often goes something like this:

“Why are you here?”
“I don’t know. Mr. Soandso sent me. It’s not fair.”
“Well, what did you do?”
“Well, Mr. Soandso…”
“Wait, I don’t want the whole story, I just want to know what you did that caused you to be here.”
“Well, Johnny…”
“No. First you say ‘I’ and then there is a verb.”
“I threw the ball over the fence.”
“That doesn’t sound bad enough for you to be sent here. Why would Mr. Soandso send you here?”
“Because he told me to put it away in the ball bin.”
“Well, that makes sense. Do you think that makes sense?”
“Yes, but…”
“Don’t go there yet. First I want you to tell me what was wrong with that and then what you are going to do about it.”
“He said it was disrespectful.”
“Well, do you agree?”
“Yes, but…”
…and so on until he gets it.

I don’t allow the conversation to drift to the faults of the other party. I don’t concern myself with what is fair or unfair. I simply insist that the student identify the part he played and then take full responsibility for his behavior. That’s a teachable moment.

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6 thoughts on “Taking Responsibility

  1. “Teachable moment”. That’s what it’s all about. I am trying to let my daughter feel her feelings and see how I can use my past experiences as a child and share them with her to help her sort her feelings out instead of trying to fix everything. Parenting is about recognizing those “teachable moments” … realizing when those moments occur is the key.

  2. Teachable moments
    “I listen to my father because I have found that he tells me things that turn out to be true,” said Allison (18 year old high school senior) as I drove her home from the basketball game the Wednesday after the Saturday night party where some of her classmates got into trouble, getting drunk and trashing the house of a classmate. “Like ‘Never go out without money,’ he says.”

    She continued: “I wish I could talk to the parents of my friends and tell them how to talk to their kids. I wish they would tell them things like ‘Never go out without money.’ There we are at Starbucks and they’re all, ‘Allison, can you pay for this? I didn’t bring any money,’ and I go, ‘Sure.’ But it get’s annoying. They do pay me back, but it’s annoying. Parents ought to be careful what they tell their kids, so that when they give them advice, the kids will listen. What those kids did to that house was gross.”

    “But you don’t always do what your father tells you, do you?”

    “No, but when he talks, I do listen. Sure, it makes me mad when he tells me to get off Facebook and start doing my homework, but I know he is telling me the right thing. That’s the point. I know it is the right thing for him to tell me. It makes him mad when I don’t do it right away, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be between parents and their teenagers. I know he’s right. I just have to do it myself. He has become like an authority. When he speaks I listen.”
    Thank you for picking up on “teachable moments.” You are right. To make sure our kids get educated we have to make sure we are good authorities, so they will listen to us when a teachable moment comes along.

  3. Teachable moments are what education is all about- what lessons end up focusing on, and also how discipline is effectively handled in a classroom. Jim Faye’s book Love and Logic teaches an approach to discipline for teachers to use that helps students understand and accept their mistakes, and to reflect appropriately in order to avoid future conflicts.
    Using this type of approach is helpful, in teaching, as I imagine it also would be in parenting, because children see the connection between their actions and the consequences of their actions, which are intentionally fitting and logical. Reflecting on one’s behavior, both with guidance for children, and as adults in guiding ourselves or with the help of colleagues, is essential for self-improvement.

  4. Yes, and:
    Of love and logic, love is the more important, and this is what it looks like: Adults making it OK to make mistakes, be imperfect, get into conflict, and even fail. Love that looks like this creates the conditions for teachable moments to be learning moments.

  5. One of the best ways to ensure that our children take responsibility for their actions is to model doing that ourselves. Doing the right thing isn’t always the easy thing, but our kids are always watching. And it can be a horrifying and humiliating moment when you see your child doing something wrong and know that they saw you do the same thing.

    Parenting isn’t always the easy thing – it’s much easier to be a friend to them than their parent sometimes, but being their friend won’t prepare them for the world they need to live in. Friends often let things slide because they like you, or they don’t want to be “rude” or unpopular. A parent will tell a child that what they’re doing is wrong, and most importantly, why it’s wrong. When children are small, a parent should say what can be done to make a wrong right. As children get older, say 3 or so, a parent should guide the child toward saying what would make a wrong right. By the time kids are pre-adolescent, they should know what’s right, and be expected to make a wrong they’ve committed right.

    Of course kids will make mistakes, and we need to let them. We need to be there to support them, but not to take responsibility for their mistakes, or whip out a solution to make it all better. All that does is let them know that “someone” will fix whatever they did wrong, and that “someone” is not them. When a child makes a mistake, we need to let them know that it happens, but it needs to be righted, and it needs never to happen again. If, for some reason, it does happen again, the consequence needs to be much stronger – a breach of trust has happened, an agreement broken. Children must learn that “one more chance” is not a license to make one mistake after another with impunity. “One more chance” is an opportunity to start out on the right path, and stay there.

  6. Well said. …and I would add: 1)by the time the kids are 5, they are hard wired with the parents’ espoused values–less talk more action is what is called for. And by the time they are 13 parents need to coach them as they take the consequences for their mistakes on their own.

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