“Mom, it’s all your fault.”
How many times have you heard your child exclaim that something is all your fault? He didn’t get his homework done. She was late for school. He received a bad grade. She didn’t make the team. Somehow, it is all Mom’s fault. What I am wondering is at what point did Mom decide that she would take responsibility for her child’s successes and failures? And how did we not teach our children a sense of personal responsibility?
Today a friend told me a story about her college-aged daughter who had a report to do for school. She was having a difficult time settling on a topic and called her mother for suggestions. The mother, always willing to do whatever she can to help her child, offered a suggestion. After considering her suggestion, however, she told her daughter that it might not be a great idea for a number of reasons. Flash forward a few days. The report is now due the following day. The Mom is out of town. The daughter calls her in a panic to bemoan the fact that she just cannot find enough information about the topic her mother suggested and now has only a few hours to complete the report. Somehow, it is all the mother’s fault that she has not completed the report.
So how does a child gain a sense of personal responsibility and what can we do as parents to teach it? One important thing is to provide challenges for them along the way and allow them to fail. That may sound unfair to parents who do not want to see their children unhappy or struggling; however, without challenge a person cannot learn how to overcome disappointments or failure. How about some specific scenarios?
- You tell your toddler to put his toys away. He does not do it. 20 minutes later you walk into his playroom and he tells you that he couldn’t do it. What do you do? Do you simply put the toys away yourself because it is easier than arguing? Do you raise your voice and start berating the child for not doing what you asked him to do? Do you offer to help him put the toys away? Do you keep him company while he puts the toys away? Personally, I think that either of the last two choices work to develop responsibility, but the last choice is best. Offer to keep him company while he puts the toys away and encourage him by praising his efforts.
- Your primary school child has a project to do for school. She waits until the night before it is due and then complains that she can not get it done. What do you do? Do you tell her that it’s late and she needs her sleep; she should go to bed and you’ll finish it for her? Do you raise your voice and start berating the child for not starting on the project sooner? Do you offer suggestions and help her to finish the project? Do you sit down to read a book and let her give it her best shot at the 11th hour? Again, Letting her know that you are not deserting her but not bailing her out either is the best solution. She needs to learn that taking responsibility for her lack of action has led her to this uncomfortable position.
- Your child forgets something at home (lunch, band instrument, homework). He calls you and asks you to bring it to him. Do you immediately take it to him? Do you get upset and wonder how he can be so forgetful? Do you tell him that it is his responsibility to remember to bring his things to school and that you will not take it to him? As difficult as it is to do, the best thing you could do is to refrain from taking it to him. He will not starve if he misses one lunch. He may be sad to miss band and will probably remember his instrument the next time. He may be embarrassed if he doesn’t have his homework but will probably remember it the next time.
- Your child has a piano lesson and the instructor tells her that she has not practiced enough during the previous week. When she gets into the car she blames you for not making her practice. Do you tell her that you will make sure she practices this week? Do you get upset with her and tell her not to blame you? Do you explain that piano is her activity and that practice is a part of the activity and she is responsible for doing it? Do you offer to help her make a schedule for practice and then hold her accountable for sticking to it on her own? I think the last two would work just fine. The important thing is to help her to see that it is her responsibility to do what it takes to succeed - if success is her goal.
- Your son has soccer practice and he is playing video games. You tell him that it is time to go to practice. He does not move. Do you tell at him and nag him until he gets in the car? Do you remind him a couple of times and then go about your business? Do you tell him that you are not going to nag him but that it is his responsibility to go to practice and that he has five minutes and then you will not take him? By choosing this last choice you are giving him a few minutes to consider what you have said, letting him know that it is his choice, and reminding him that he has a responsibility to the team to be there. If he then chooses not to go, you can remind him that it was his choice and he will have to live with the consequences - not playing in the game, having the couch angry with him, or having his teammates annoyed that he wasn’t at practice. Note: if you say that he has five minutes and that you will not take him after that, DON”T take him if he emerges 10 minutes later, ready to go.
The bottom line is that to teach personal responsibility a parent must start teaching children at a young age. By “saving” them and “bailing them out” throughout their childhoods, we ensure that they will become adults who blame others for their failures rather than taking charge of their own lives.