Not too long ago, I was walking and juggling overflowing baskets of laundry, when my seven year old said: “Mom. I made a mistake”. As the word mistake echoed around the two of us, I stopped walking. I looked at my son, noticing his face scrunched up in concentration. Curious about this mistake I sat down with him.
Shoulder to shoulder with my son I said “I’m listening.”
“Well, I’m still thinking.” He replied.
In that moment, I so wanted to spring up and tackle the never ending laundry. But I stopped my own hurry and said “Ok. I’ll keep you company while you think.” And then I waited.
I waited because I hoped that with some time and patience, my son would figure out what to do about this mistake he was still thinking about.
Time and patience are two tools for teaching responsibility that we parents often forget to use.
Armed with nothing but good intentions to teach our children important lessons, like responsibility and the “consequences of their actions” we parents (myself included) can be quick to jump into fixing, questioning and lecturing. Alarm bells ring in our brains when children make mistakes or misbehave:
What were you thinking…Don’t you know better…Are you kidding me…Your choices have consequences you know!!!!
But time and patience, a willingness to just be present with our children is so often much better than any lectures, consequences or punishments.
How Children Learn Responsibility
The word Responsibility breaks down beautifully into two words: Response & Ability*
(*response-ability” – the ability to choose your response. – Steven Covey)
How much a child feels ready and able to respond to her circumstances is what will help her grow in a responsible way.
When children learn how to respond to a variety of circumstances that come up in real life, like dealing with mistakes, they are actively developing responsibility. And as we gift our children our time and patience, we cultivate in our children trust and capability.
But what about consequences you may be thinking…don’t children need to know the consequences to their actions? While many actions have consequences, by focusing on imposed consequences we often steal away the very opportunity to teach our children what responsibility really is all about.
Helping children explore the consequences of their choices is much different from imposing consequences on them. – Jane Nelsen D.Ed. author of the bestselling Positive Discipline Series.
Responsibility can’t come from imposed consequences:
- Standing in the corner for spilling milk doesn’t help a child learn to pour well or how to clean up messes.
- Wearing a shaming sign for cheating on a test, doesn’t teach a child how to prioritize studying. Or why education is valuable. It doesn’t teach that it is safe to ask for help when they are struggling.
- Not playing video games for hitting a sibling doesn’t teach a child how to express his jealously, frustration or annoyances in a constructive way.
Raising responsible kids has very little to do with finding the right consequences. And everything to do with encouraging children to participate, to be problem solvers, critical thinkers and capable beings. Ones capable of accepting their circumstances, capable of looking for solutions and capable of telling the truth. Even when they make big mistakes.
Instead of focusing on consequences, teaching Response+ Ability….may start with us saying:
- “I see markers on the wall. Let’s go get some soap and a sponge to clean this up together.” And following up with “Next time you want to color, you can find paper right here in this drawer.”
- “Let’s dry up this water with some towels” And following up with an opportunity to practice and learn “Here, why don’t you pour me a glass and yourself another glass.”
- “Looks like this broke. Too bad. The good news is, we can glue this back together.” And following up with “If you would like to see something from one of these shelves, I’d like you to ask me first.”
Eventually these moments can turn into our children feeling able to respond = responsible:
- “I spilled water. I’ll get a towel!”
- “Ooops, sorry I broke that. Can I help you glue it?”
- “I made a mistake. And I think with a bit of help, I can fix it!”
A calm response to mishaps, mistakes and misbehaviors, one that focuses on repair and capability, wires our children to weather much bigger storms as they grow too. That is called resiliency. Resilient children know that they have resources they can use to overcome all sorts of mistakes.
Remember that mistake my son wanted to tell me about? The mistake was a broken bed! His sister’s mattress frame (yikes!) And after we sat together for a few minutes he told me how it happened. He had a plan to apologize to his siter and then he explained several possible fixes:
- Bella can sleep on my bed, and I will sleep on the broken one.
- We can drive to the store and get a replacement slat, if you have time today or another day.
- I have some allowance saved up and I will pay for the new bed slats and help put it back into the right place.
- If papa let’s me borrow some tools, I can try to fix it. Duck tape might work until we get a replacement!
These were his own solutions. Solutions that came from taking responsibility for his actions. I didn’t need to tell him it was wrong to break the bed. Or that there are consequences to his actions. He already knew that. He accepted responsibility. He thought about solutions. I’m quite sure that me imposing consequences would have not added anything helpful to his learning process.
Mistakes and misbehavior that at first glance may seem like the very moments to impose consequences are often the exact opportunities for us parents to give our children some time and patience. And in this case, an excellent excuse for me to ignore laundry for just a while longer 😉
So what do you think, is it possible to foster responsibility without imposing consequences?
Peace & Be Well,
Raising Problem Solvers The One Question to Ask Before Helping Your Child By Alissa Marquess @Creative with Kids
Eight Ways to Deal with Anger as a Parent by Kristina B. @Toddler Approved
How To Be an Empathetic Parent, Even When it Feels Hard by Andrea Nair