A is For Accountability

Accountability is an issue I often face in my classrooms, and one on which I am relentless in trying to teach my students. I tell them that when you are accountable, you don’t blame the kid sitting next to you for throwing something across the room. You can’t control what others say and do but you certainly can control what you do.

Here’s a typical example that comes up regularly. “I didn’t do my homework because I had to do chores around the house, or I didn’t do my homewwork because the family had to visit my grandmother, and we didn’t get home till late.”

So, how do we teach kids accountability?

  • Teach them to be conscious and informed whenever they make a choice.
  • Try to determine if the choice is more likely to help them or someone else, or on the other side of the coin, hurt them.
  • Talk over the choice with people they trust and make sure to include at least one adult.
  • After making the choice, review what they did and what happened as a result. Have them self-reflect by asking, “Did my choice help someone or help me, and did it make a situation better?”

Kids can learn from their choices by remembering what they did and what the consequences were.

When making a poor choice, teach children to:

Admit it! Not an easy one for most kids, as they may be afraid of the consequences and prefer to take the easy way out. A suggestion might be to have your child write in a journal about the poor choice and describe the consequences. They might answer the question, what did you learn as a result of your choice, and would you do it again? Why or why not?

Teach your child to do what they can to make up for their poor choice. Model a poor choice you made and what you did about it.

Here are two suggestions of books for different age levels that teach kids accountability. “What do You Stand For? A Kid’s Guide to Building Character” by Barbara Lewis, Free Spirit Publishing, non-fiction

“Choosing Sides” by Irene Cooper, Morrow Junior Books for ages 10-13, fiction

“Trouble’s Child”, Mildred Pitts Walter, fiction ages 12 and up

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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.”

Model Accountability

How often do you feel you are being punished more than your child when it comes to giving consequences?  Often, rude and disruptive behavior escalates after consequences are given and you might ask yourself if it was worth. In The Total Transformation Program, the originators of the program, Janet and James Lehman, leaders in the field of parenting children with oppositional and defiant behavior, underscore the importance of all children needing to learn to be accountable for their actions no matter what age.  I so agree with this idea because as a teacher I often have to deal with oppositionally defiant kids who blame everyone but themselves for their failures.

Some students refuse to listen, turning their hearing off, so to speak, and looking at you blankly as if you weren’t there.  This is a way to gain control, because they feel they are disempowered and this technique seems to work for them if you fall into that trap.  The Lehmans state that it is up to you (the parents) to create a climate of accountability in the home and in the community with your child.

It is my experience that some parents try to justify the inappropriate behavior of their child, and tend to blame it on the child’s friends or teachers as being a bad influence.  Based on working with scores of parents, I am of the opinion that some parents use ineffective strategies to teach their child, and when they don’t work, they look for someone else to blame for their failures.  I believe a number of parents “look the other way” when a child is behaving disgracefully, or is abusive and disrespectful to them or others.  There are times when parents may under-react to a child’s weaknesses by refusing to recognize them.  Modeling accountability by admitting when you are wrong, is certainly one way to teach your child this important lesson.