When Is a Child Accountable?

What I find most interesting and what comes up on a regular basis for me in the classroom, and probably for you as a parent, is the idea that it does little good to focus attention on a mistake or inappropriate behavior if the child denies it. I find kids, pre-teens, and teens, are particularly good at denying things – a missile shot across a classroom, a lapsed homework assignment, a slap on the back of a classmate’s head, a pilfered cell phone. Pre-teens and teens seem to think if you can’t prove they’ve done it, it’s as if they didn’t do it. Rather than attempting to prove guilt, the wise mentor recognizes the bigger problem – The child doesn’t feel it’s safe to be held accountable.

In the case of the child protecting his vulnerability by lying, it’s probably a good idea to simply explain what would have happened if in the cases above, he/she would have taken responsibility for admitting to the wrongdoing. When the youngster realizes that he/she would only be required to apologize or replace the object, and there would be no dire consequences or loss of love or respect, he would be more inclined to feel accountable and responsible.

Not every incident is as simple as the above ones of course, and the “talk” should always be based on the age of the child. In the case of a young child, seven or eight, who has been accused of losing or taking something valuable, a child of that age doesn’t understand the value in monetary or sentimental terms of an object. Certainly, determining fault and responsibility is a complex matter.

When children are raised in a compassionate manner to learn from their mistakes and take responsibility for them, they take this into adulthood. Accountability is certainly essential for adults to self-correct, but it is not so for children.

As John Grey, Ph.D. states in his book, Children Are From Heaven, “Accountability is the conscious recognition that ‘I made a mistake’.  Children do not develop a sense of self until they are nine years old. Before the age of nine, self-correction occurs automatically without accountability. There is no sense of self who has made the mistake. The innocent child self-corrects not because he has done something wrong, but to imitate his parents and to cooperate.”  The not so innocent child beyond that age needs to have a sense of accountability and responsibility instilled over time, without being made to feel unworthy or inadequate. The older child needs to feel safe to make mistakes without severe punishment or the sense of losing love. As Dr. Grey states, “Those who succeed in life are those who can self-correct and change their thinking, attitude, or behavior.”


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