A pinched nerve in the back makes one walk like a sand crab but it also causes writer’s cramp, mental block and scrivener’s palsy, all of which I am experiencing. A column is also due today. This is when I punt and lift something from an earlier publication, in this case my book, Retro Parenting.
Whoever creates a problem owns it and to a certain extent is responsible for its solution. That is known as accountability and in order to raise a generation that has this concept as a character trait it must be inculcated not only by parents but by other entities of influence in a child’s life. I will address it from a parent’s obligation.
A child should own his misbehaviors. If something is broken due to carelessness, encourage ownership of the problem and assist in its resolution. Adults do not find it easy to admit they goofed and children do not find it easy either.
With kids it is good to use words like “poor choice” or “poor judgment” when it applies to an accountability situation. If something has been broken, lost or destroyed ask the child responsible if their part in the incident was a good or a bad choice and allow them to figure out the difference between the two. A child deserves the right adjectives and words like “bad”, “naughty” or “rotten” should describe the behavior only: the behavior is bad, not the child.
When a neighbor rings the doorbell and reports that your darling child cracked an egg over their kitten’s head, there is a good chance that it happened. Avoid saying anything even close to “ I know little Leroy would never do a thing like that, he loves your kitten”. He may like eggs too, but the chances are almost 100% that he did it. It is hard to accept that our kids can do mean, dumb or hateful things, but occasionally they do. Handle it courteously and respectfully with the neighbor and handle it with your child. Ask for the facts and circumstances. To the very young it may have made good sense to do what was done, (“ the kitty bit my toe”). In this case use it as a teaching moment on how to treat animals in our care. However if old enough to know better and previously had the equivalent of the egg-cat lesson, the child should own the problem and be accountable for rectifying whatever damages resulted from his actions.
Accompany the child to the kitty’s owner to make amends. If it was a granite egg and the cat was knocked coo-coo, offer to pay for a trip to the vet, but if the kitty is happy as a clam licking egg yolk off his fur, an apology on the child’s part might be sufficient. This done. The child has accepted accountability for his actions and acted appropriately and so has the parent.
The same approach must apply to a child’s first attempt at taking a package of gum or snatching a ripe strawberry in the grocery store. As an observant parent use the experience as a teaching moment. The experience of having to admit to a cashier to taking something and someone having to pay for it will help ensure the embarrassment will prevent his becoming a repeat offender. If there are repeat offenses they must be dealt with promptly and consistently for today’s strawberry snatch can become tomorrow’s TV or iPad theft.
When I was a child I stole three purple grapes from a basket sitting on the counter of the little country store where my parents purchased groceries. Times were hard, money scarce and purple grapes were never on my mom’s grocery list. Wanting the grapes so badly made them irresistible. Reaching my arm between several people talking at the counter, three grapes found their way out of the basket, into my mouth and down my gullet. They tasted like ambrosia of the gods.
Then it hit me: my family considered theft a vile, evil deed and I had just committed it. What was worse, the store owner was my Sunday School teacher and I had to face him every Sunday at church. For at least five years I prayed on a steady basis for forgiveness. It was a long time coming. Neither my parents nor the storekeeper ever knew of my crime. It was my choice to face the demon of guilt alone and after privately vowing never to steal another thing or follow a life of crime, I eventually forgave myself. My accountability in this instance was that it left me with an abhorrence for the little sins we so easily forgive; a little lie here, a little cheating there or a slight dishonesty somewhere, the little breaches of integrity we find easy to overlook in ourselves or our children.
Kids readily learn that a quick, “I am sorry” may prevent punishment and sometimes it may suffice. But there are times when an “I am sorry” is not enough. If a child has disobeyed instructions and the lack of attention to those instructions has resulted in something being broken or someone being hurt, “I’m sorry” is not good enough. It is a parent’s duty to insist the child give some serious thought to his actions and be made to ponder the result of his behavior, understand how it affected others and accept accountability for his actions. Then and only then will the “I’m sorry” be meaningful and provide a teaching experience.
A great thing, accountability. As individuals, families and a country we need to embrace it. Children who carry the lesson of accountability into their adult lives are living examples of successful parenting and as adults they are a blessing to our culture and indeed our nation.
Marge Flados is a resident of Harlingen and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.