It's Not My Fault!
By Gail Perry Johnston
Teaching accountability is not much fun. Who wants to pay the bills after we’ve been on a spending spree? Who wants to follow through on a commitment when something better comes along? We struggle with accountability ourselves, and now we have to teach it to our children? If we want our children to become caring, contented, and fulfilled people, then the answer is: yes, we do. But don’t worry; you’re probably teaching it already, whether you know it or not. The goal of this article is to encourage you to become more intentional about it and give you the big picture as to why it’s so important.
First, a definition would help. To be accountable means to be responsible or answerable to someone for something. It involves taking responsibility for our own actions and knowing that they impact others, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. To be accountable is to bear the consequences of our mistakes, avoid blaming others and know how to follow through. A person who feels little accountability is likely to be careless and immature; think of Michael on the show “The Office.” On the other side of the spectrum, people who feel a strong sense of accountability to others and even to themselves (to be the best of their ability) are likely to be caring, giving individuals. Think of James Stewart’s character in It’s A Wonderful Life. The following are three things we can do as parents to help our children develop more along the lines of the latter example.
Let them know you’re watching.
Children need to know that their parents are aware of what they are up to. I remember wondering if my mom really had that eye in the back of her head. This is a good thing. It helps children feel secure and become mindful about their choices. As your children grow and demonstrate they can handle various activities on their own without self-destructing or hurting baby brother, you can explain that since they have earned your trust, they can enjoy certain privileges. Ideally, you watch less and less as your children become more responsible and they apply the accountability they have learned to their relationships and the world beyond.
Children need to know that the world includes others to whom they are accountable: teachers, civil authorities, other adults, caring friends and God, who is there when no one else is. The idea or goal is to teach your children to act responsibly whether or not someone is watching. You want them to understand that their choices make a difference in known and unknown ways. Teach them about the “ripple effect.” Such awareness will not burden them, but rather give them a healthy sense of meaning and community, as well as accountability.
Feel the consequences of their mistakes.
No one can make it through life—or even 15 minutes—without making mistakes, so the sooner we learn to own up to our mistakes and, if possible, correct them, the better. And there is learning involved here. Parents know this fact more than anyone. “I didn’t do it,” toddlers love to claim after letting so much as a little fart escape. Parents try to model and teach them how to say, “Excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and “How can I make amends?” We also teach them to clean up after themselves and not blame others when they do something for which they are responsible. But what is really challenging—and important—is to allow your children to feel the pain or accept the consequences of their misdeeds, and when they don’t feel it, figuring out a consequence so they do feel it. A simple example: When my teenage daughter fails to put her dirty clothes in the hamper all week, she gets to do the laundry on the weekend.
Don’t do their homework.
I’m picking on the issue of homework because it’s relevant to most of us and because the way we handle it as parents can help or hinder our children for life. When my children first started getting homework, I let them know it was their responsibility, not mine. Often I would tell them that I had my own homework to do, and I would work right alongside them on something else. Working closely beside your children is a good way to help them stick with their assignment, without actually doing it for them. If you don’t actually have work to do yourself, you can read a newspaper or read one of their textbooks so you can see what they’re learning and discuss it (which is entirely different than doing their homework). There will be times when it’s appropriate to get involved in a special project or hard-to-grasp concept, or there may be unique learning challenges that require more input from you, but the bigger principal is this: help your children grow into the people they are meant to be by allowing them to experience the struggles and rewards of accomplishing their own work.
In conclusion, being accountable helps us be our best, so let’s be intentional about teaching this essential character trait. However, the goal is not perfection in our parenting, nor in our children. We will make mistakes, and when we do, therein lies another opportunity to own up to them and model accountability to our children.