We love our kids and we will do anything for them. We want to protect them. We want to help them. But sometimes, in our effort to do these things, we take away their ability to experience life. We take away their ability to experience consequences. And worse yet, we take away their ability to take responsibility for their actions.
Accountability is defined as an obligation or the willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions. We can look at numerous examples in the news today of people who refused to take accountability for their actions and are now experiencing dire consequences. When we take away our kids’ opportunities to take responsibility for their actions, we are setting them up for life-altering repercussions when they become adults.
When I work with my kids, I am always looking to the future: trying to figure out not only where they should be as little kids, but where they will need to be as adults, functioning and productive in society. I don’t treat them like babies—rather, I treat the young people they are. Who will one day grow up and have real world problems. I do not sugar-coat life for them.
There are many ways to train your children to embrace accountability. Here are a few:
1. Encourage kids to take on challenges
As parents, we are fully aware of our kids’ strengths and weaknesses. In order to help boost our children’s self-esteem, we tend to encourage them to do things that we know they’ll be good at. Encouraging the child in something that he is good at and playing to his strengths is always a good idea. However, this does not mean that we should never encourage children to approach things that stretch them beyond their comfort zone.
Indeed, in life we all have to tackle problems in areas that we might not necessarily like and that we are not good at. Challenging your children now will help them to develop the fortitude to solve problems and face issues that are outside of their comfort zone as they grow.
If we deprive our children of opportunities to challenge themselves, we do them a disservice developmentally, because they will never learn to take on challenges and thus become accountable for issues that are outside of their comfort zone. It is much easier to teach a child how to tackle successes and failures in challenging situations when they are young, than to expect the young adult who has never faced a challenge to be able to conquer it once they are living on their own.
2. Allow them to make mistakes
As we watch our children living life, we are so often tempted to protect them from making mistakes. If we see that our child is about to fall, we want to rush to catch them before they hit the ground. If we see our kids making a bad decision, we are so tempted to intervene and instead tell them what to do or handle it ourselves. The problem with this is that the children then never learn cause and effect. Worse, this sort of action sends a subconscious message to the child that they are incapable of making a decision on their own. It causes the child to perpetually second-guess their own instincts and instead rely on exterior methods of problem-solving as opposed internal methods.
If we do not allow children to make mistakes, it takes away any accountability for poor decisions and it releases any responsibility on the child’s behalf for any consequences of their actions.
Denying a child the ability to make her own mistakes also sends the message that making a mistake is a bad thing. I teach my kids that everyone makes mistakes, including Mom. But what is important about a mistake is being accountable for it, accepting responsibility for it, learning from it, and then moving on with life.
Children who do not learn to use mistakes as learning opportunities can never meet their full potential as adults.
3. Allow them to experience consequences for their actions
Every child has the capacity to learn cause-and-effect relationships. For example, my daughter learned at age 2 that having a fit and falling out in the middle of the floor would result in me walking away and leaving her in the room by herself. Since this is obviously not the reaction she was going for, the fits ended in about two weeks’ time. Similarly, my son learned that practicing his violin the required three hours per week meant that he did not embarrass himself when the orchestra teacher started calling on people individually to play their piece in front of class to ferret out who was playing the wrong notes.
And so it is with life. We experience consequences on a daily basis. If we do not pay our bill, our lights get turned off. If we go to work or work our business, we get paid.
When we tell our kids that certain consequences will flow from their actions, we have to make sure that we follow through. When we have warned our children or encouraged them on a point and advised them of the consequences, it is imperative that we allow them to deal with the consequences, whatever they may be.
Sometimes, my son decided he was not interested in practicing his violin for three hours during the week. Orchestra was always stressful for me because I wanted the children to do well and wanted them to be perfect. However, they were old enough that I realized I just had to let them make the call. One week when my son did not attend to his violin, it was he who had to tell the orchestra teacher how many minutes he’d practiced. It made a much bigger impact for him to have to report that he’d only practiced 30 minutes and have to face the teacher’s disapproving face, than it was for me to nag him to practice. And it was a much more powerful lesson when he did practice and she complimented him on how perfectly he played his piece.
When I have suggested that people allow their children to experience consequences, some have replied that it is our role as parents to make the decisions and that some things are just too important to leave in a child’s hand. I agree with this. For example, I will determine when bedtime is, I will prepare nutritionally balanced food and I expect them to eat it, and I will set the framework for our homeschool. Those are major decisions that affect my children’s livelihood and our family dynamic.
But we can and should give children as many opportunities as possible to exercise autonomy and govern decisions in their lives. And as they get older, they should be given more autonomy. It is far better for them to make mistakes while at home with parents who can counsel and guide them through the mistake, than to have them experience mistakes when they’re out in the world that they really could’ve learned about earlier in life.
4. Teach self-reflection
As a practicing attorney, it was common for the team to get together after closing a big deal and go over what went well and what didn’t. Many industries do this sort of Monday morning quarterbacking. And this is something that should be encouraged with your children.
Parent led reflection is something that would happen after a major event. An example of this would be after a child got in trouble at school or if there was a major conflict on a play date. This is the time when you sit down with your child, have them go over the facts of the incident, and then have the child tell you what his role was in the incident, if he thought the incident could’ve been handled differently on his part, if so, how, and then discuss what could be learned from the incident. At that point, you can discuss any consequences that will flow from the incident and then—and this is key—agree that the incident is over and you are moving on.
The “moving on” part is really critical. Unless the situation calls for additional discussion or action, it is a policy in my house that we do not bring up past mistakes. This is so important in maintaining an open dialogue with your children. As painful as parent-led reflection can be, my kids understand that once it’s over, that’s the end of it. If the child is afraid that mistakes are going to be brought up over and over again, they will not be as open with you.
Reflecting on the day, the highs and lows, can benefit anyone. It reminds me of having to keep a timesheet whereby at the end of the day, I had to make sure that every hour I spent working during the day was reported and accounted for. A wonderful exercise in accountability is to teach a child as part of her bedtime routine to spend a moment to reflect on the great things in the not so great things of the day, process what’s happened, and decide how to make tomorrow a better day. Engaging in self-reflection and making a conscious effort to make the next day a better day, forces the child to accept his or her role in the day as well as acknowledge that she is in control, to a great extent, of the outcome of her life the following day.
For a child to recognize that she has control of her own destiny and that her actions can affect that destiny is incredibly powerful. It serves as a subconscious method to remind your kids that their locus of control is within them and not something that’s imposed upon them by an external force. A person who accepts responsibility for his or her own actions is one who will, by definition, be more accountable for those actions.
5. Discourage blaming, excuse making and self-victimization
If you turn on any news program today, you will see that it is replete with blaming, excuse-making, and self-victimization. I do not accept any of these in my home. I do not accept “I did it because my brother did it.” Because the next question becomes, “But you knew it was wrong when he did it, so why would you follow someone you know is doing something wrong?” Therefore, that “excuse” does not fly. Indeed, it may elicit a more severe consequence for having followed someone who she knew was in the wrong.
Self-victimization is a huge problem in today’s society. Most people have a host of reasons why bad things happen to them or why they cannot achieve something. And I acknowledge that sometimes those reasons are valid. But in many instances, they are not.
When we take away the self-victimization, we teach children the grit and wherewithal to cope with life. Because in life not everything is going to go their way. If they have learned to self-reflect, they will be able better to cope with, and perhaps work around, challenges that were initially seen as impossible. But if a child is allowed to wallow in self-victimization, it takes any responsibility away from the child and lays it upon an uncontrollable external force.
By refusing to accept blaming of other people, excuses, and self-victimization, we leave the child with no choice but to be accountable for her actions.
6. Help kids set goals and self-accountability charts
If you have not been accustomed to holding your child accountable, it is never too late to begin. A good way to start is by sitting down with your child and helping him prepare a list of his own goals. Each goal should lay out several steps that help the child to achieve that goal. Have the child set a timetable for achieving the goals and then have the child post her accountability chart in an area see where she can see it daily.
At the end of the designated time period, sit down with your child and go over where he is with regard to meeting his goal. Encourage and congratulate him for the goals that he has successfully completed. Ask how it feels to see that he has accomplished the goal on his own through his own ingenuity and hard work. For any goals that were not fully accomplished, reflect on why they were not completed and develop a plan for completing them.
The accountability charts should consist primarily of tasks that the child can accomplish largely on her own. Working with accountability charts will give your child a visual representation of the benefits and consequences of being accountable. This can be a very powerful tool in encouraging accountability in an older child.
Teaching children accountability will serve them their entire lives. It will help them in their relationships, it will help them on their job, and it will help them when they are running their businesses. The lack of accountability is so rampant these days; we can turn the tide and raise responsible and morally-competent children who will be the great thought and business leaders for tomorrow.