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  • Writer's pictureSusie Csorsz Brown

Mea Culpa

There's a habit we assume, in an effort to deflect harsh comments, criticism, or general discontent wherein we blame others for things or actions that belong squarely on our own shoulders. It's not my fault! I didn't do it! He made me do it! I dunno. It's easier to say who it wasn't (even if it isn't necessarily true) than to 'fess up. I know, it can be hard to own up to doing the wrong, or making the error. Especially if you're a kid, owning up to doing the wrong might feel as though the Eye of Sauron just lasered right onto you, up there on the stage, in your proverbial underwear, everyone staring. Of course, that is obviously the worst-case scenario, but still ... it is nerve-racking to raise your hand and claim responsibility.

It isn't just about blame, though, is it? It's about accepting responsibility and owning up to your own actions. We have a challenge at our house in that two of our boys are extremely good at getting out of work and, according to them, have never once misplaced anything nor made a mess even once in their lives. In my mind, if everyone pitches in, then it is that much less burden for every one person. Instead, one or two of us do the bulk of the tasks, leaving us feeling grumpy and weighed-down, while the rest (or at least two of them) basically disappear every time it is time to get tasks accomplished or if there has been a problem/mess created. I can't tell you how many times I find a misplaced bowl/dirty spot/toy mess/big water mess, ask who the culprit might be and no one seems to have any idea how it happened or got there.

Know this: The quickest way to change your child’s behavior is to first change your own.

Fact: If you are playing tic-tac-toe, and you are the second to place your mark, your odds of winning the game are 1/3. If you go first, 2/3. Why? Because as a second player, you are reacting to the game that the first person is playing; you are basically waiting for the first player to make a mistake (or win the game, as the case may be). What, you may ask, does a child’s game have to do with parenting? My suggestion to you is to be the first player: Stop being the one to react; be the one to make the first move. Make the effort: you change your tone, your ideas, your interactions, the response will have to be different as well. No longer can your kid make the first move. You will be the one calling the shots. And yes, it is really that easy. he first step is getting rid of parental anger and the tendency to overreact. A lot of blaming and making excuses is inspired by children trying to ward off what feels like an attack or an onslaught of shame from the parent. When you keep your cool while correcting your kids, it helps them keep their focus on their own behavior, rather than on your reaction. Fact is, though, if you make every bad thing/error/mistake a HUGE deal, then your kids are going to stop letting you know that they goofed.

I don't want to be judge and/or jury. I don't want to hear excuses. I am happy to listen to disputes, and hear testimony to decide who was right and who was wrong. I explained that if they had a complaint, it better be one with merit. It better not be mere blame shifting. Kids are actually very skilled at working most things out on their own, especially when they realize that coming to you will only result in a (potentially much more harsh) dose of reality. It's important that we learn how to take responsibility, how we learn to own up, and how we learn to learn from our mistakes. It's also important for kids to realize that many of their actions/non-actions will result in consequences, intended or otherwise. And if it is THEIR CHOICE to take the action (or not, as the case may be) then the resulting consequence is also their choice so they should accept it. Help them tie the consequences that may happen to their choice. Explain to your kids that they control their quality of life. It’s in their hands, not yours. Give your kids the freedom to make choices, clearly stating what the reward or the consequence of their choice will be. Link the consequences to something they really care about (play, privileges, toys, bedtime). Consequences are a result of poor decisions, not a punishment in themselves. If your children use their freedom to make wrong choices, do not nag or give excessive warnings. Instead, take an emotionally neutral stance and follow through on the consequences. And do it: follow through. The more you step in and protect them from the consequences, the less likely they will be to learn the lesson. Why should they take care if you are ALWAYS going to fix it for them? YOu cannot continue to be their life-preserver; there is a point where they need to do it for themselves. This is a part of healthy maturation and development. Failure may smell bad and feel awful, but without it our teens will never know the competence attained through genuine and authentic success. The very experience of suffering from the consequences - from school-related repercussions for not turning in homework, to loss of property due to carelessness to not being able to go to join friends after procrastinating an assignment - can hopefully result in life lessons learned ... and what not to do the next time the situation rolls around.

This is not just a lesson for young kids. Teens too, need regular instruction on accepting responsibility. Make sure your expectations also address your teen’s attitude. Explain, “It is not OK to obey me while you roll your eyes and mutter something disrespectful. That will also result in a negative consequence.” Coach your teen toward accepting responsibility by expecting him to clearly vocalize what he did, how it was hurtful. What did they learn from the experience that they can do differently next time? Give them the tools they’ll need to handle what comes their way and watch them grow into confident, capable young adults.

Another important lesson for your kids to understand about accepting responsibility is that errors and mistakes aren't all bad; in fact, they offer valuable experiences that can help us to develop skills and abilities. I mean, you are only going to fall so many times while learning to ride that bike before you finally learn ... maybe out of self-preservation, but fact is, each time you fall, you learn one more thing not to do. Beyond learning lessons, another very important part of learning to accept responsibilities and to not play the blame game is to refocus one's thoughts on not being a victim. Feeling like a victim - like someone or something is always at fault, or the cause of your current situation - not only removes the responsibility but also puts you in the frame of mind that life happens 'to' you and not as a result of your actions. Further, if you see your child as a victim, he will eventually see himself that way, too. This is perhaps the most treacherous part of blaming and excuse making, because it develops one of the worst possible perceptions in kids: “Since I’m a victim, the rules don’t apply to me.” Herein lies the real danger. There are rules that accompany learning. There are rules that accompany individual change. Children who don’t follow those rules often don’t learn and don’t change. Victim thinking can eventually result in feelings of powerlessness, lack of self confidence, frustration, and lack of motivation to do anything at all because the belief that it doesn't make a difference anyway. That's a conversation for another day. Suffice it to say, helping our kids develop their sense of self-efficacy - ownership over their own destiny and actions - is an important thing. Getting out of the blame-game is not just about getting fewer 'I dunno' and 'She did it!'s at home. Learning to accept responsibility is a valuable life lesson for your kids. Of course, we are all guilty of stepping in and trying to correct the mistakes of our kids – after all, they are a reflection of US and we personalize those mistakes to the point of blurring the lines of blame. But know this: It’s okay to screw up and it’s okay for our kids to fail. If we don’t begin helping them find the beauty in resiliency, we lose on all fronts the real lessons we hope to instill before they head off into the real world. I promise you, when they go to university (because they will, eventually, move out), they will not have your safety net there. Instead, let's do the hard work now, so when they are out on their own and when they make an error or mess up, they will already know how to raise their hand, claim the error, and learn from their mistakes, so that they can do it better the next time.

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