Teaching Children Responsibility - What It Really Means & How To Do It

Teaching Children Responsibility

A two year old knocks over his cup of juice and it spills onto the hardwood floor. His mother frowns. "Look at what you've done," she hisses, pointing at the cup. "This is the third time today!" The child hangs his head. Something tugs at the mother's heart, but she can't stop herself from sighing heavily, as she bends down to wipe the floor.

Perhaps you've been witness to such a scene or maybe you've been a participant. There are so many things happening in this moment that it helps to take a close look at the parent-child dynamic and interplay. The first and most important thing to notice is how the mother blames and shames the child. She makes him feel bad about what was most likely an accident. If she thinks she's teaching responsibility, she's wrong. In fact, the only thing the little boy has learned is that he feels bad about himself. Sure, he may be more careful about spilling in the future, but that will be driven by a sense of shame, rather than responsibility.

This kind of scenario is not unique to parenthood, but extends into our greater culture. When something happens that we don't like, we point a blaming finger. This strikes at the heart of the American allegiance to cause and effect: if something happened, someone must have caused it; therefore, it must be that person's fault. The guilty party must be blamed, shamed and often humiliated publicly. This suffering is part of what the offender must endure in order to make things right. Of course, it feels much better to be the accuser, than to stand accused, so righteous indignation fuels the fire and at least partially explains why some people are so quick to blame.

While some crimes must be punished, spilling a glass of juice isn't one of them. Even if it was the child's third spill that day.

As caring parents, we must find alternatives to assigning fault. Contrary to popular belief, teaching children responsibility does not need to built from a sense of shame.

About ten years ago, I witnessed a family eating dinner in a restaurant and the way they behaved when their youngest daughter overturned her glass of milk has stayed with me ever since. Without a trace of disapproval, the mother said, "It's okay, sweetie. We'll help you clean it up." Then every member of the family grabbed their napkin and wiped until the spill was gone, including the youngest member of the family who looked like she was only three years old.

This, of course, is key and the essence of teaching children responsibility--the willingness to respond, no matter what the situation. Think about it for a moment because it's quite profound. Nobody blamed or shamed. No one was left feeling bad. There was no righteous indignation and thus, no drama. Instead, everyone helped clean up the mess. The message sent? It's okay to make mistakes. It's okay to be human. When accidents happen, other people will pitch in and help.

What I witnessed that day was humanity in action--people helping people. If you see the value of teaching responsibility, then teach kids to be responsive to their environment. Model this behavior by acting, rather than reacting. If something happens, whatever it is, ask other family members to help. Show them how quickly messes can be done and over with if everyone lends a hand.

For those of you who grew up in families that blamed and shamed as mine did, you'll know that it often takes years to recover from the impact of those wounds. Blame gets internalized as shame. Shame profoundly affects all aspects of your life, especially how you feel about yourself.

A story about a friend of mine will illustrate how deeply blaming wounds. My friend grew up feeling so ashamed of herself that she imagined that she must have done something horrible. The worst thing that she could think of was that maybe she'd killed someone. She said that she feared that one day people would discover what a bad person she was and she'd be sent to prison forever. After years of therapy, she realized that what was making her feel that way was all those layers of blame and shame. Her shame had imprisoned her and the person she'd killed had been herself.

Teaching children responsibility happens when you model responsiveness. Above all, remember to be gentle with the souls it is your job to tend.

Learn to be a responsive parent by following the guidance in Laura Ramirez's parenting book, Keepers of the Children: Native American Wisdom and Parenting. The book won a Nautilus Award for "books that promote conscious living and social change."

Change the world one child at a time.

~ Laura Ramirez

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Copyright 1999 by Laura Pickford Ramirez. Laura is the author of Keepers of the Children. In her book, she teaches parents how to raise children to know their hearts and minds and live their lives with integrity and purpose. According the author, "Children raised in such a way will grow up to become lights unto the world."

Are you the parent of a disrespectful, defiant child or teen. Read my review of the Total Transformation, an at-home behavioral program that will help you teach your child how to turn around his or her behavior without being punitive.

Teaching Children Responsibility


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