My family lived in a small town, and my sister recalled the following incident:
“When I was walking home from high school one day, one of the roughneck kids from the ‘bad side’ of town came up to me and we had a short conversation. When I got home, Dad asked, ‘What were you and Johnny talking about today?’ He didn’t ask in an accusatory way, but it made me feel naked that someone (it turns out that two of my father’s co-workers had called) had made a point to tell him when they saw that I might be getting into trouble. I knew that I didn’t live in a vacuum, and no matter what I did, I would have to account for it.”
Needless to say, my sister, brother and I NEVER did anything as stupid as hang with the wrong crowd or experiment with drugs, alcohol or promiscuity despite being teenagers during the 60s and 70s. While other parents thought they were acting “enlightened” by tolerating bratty, foolish, and sometimes criminal behavior, we knew we were expected to toe the line in terms of our behavior and our responsibilities (school and part-time jobs.) In short, we were held accountable for our behavior from the time we were old enough to understand right and wrong.
How do parents instill a sense of accountability and personal responsibility in their children without coming across like prison wardens? The first step is to develop standards of behavior that are clearly defined and age appropriate. A three-year-old may not be able to understand why all honesty isn’t necessarily good (“Gee lady, you sure are fat”) but they can understand simple standards such as, don’t hit, share your toys, don’t tease the dog, etc. Then, those standards need to be applied across the board. For example, if your child has been told not to hit but you witness one of his playmates hitting another child, it is your job as the adult to impose your household standards on the other child, politically incorrect though that may be. The offending child needs to be reprimanded, instructed to apologize or sent home if they refuse to do so or continue the behavior. This makes it clear that Mom and Dad are serious about their values. It also shows your child that values aren’t relative to the person or the situation; right is always right, whether it’s popular or not.
Second, parents need to keep the lines of communication open. Just as in my sister’s example, parents need to communicate with teachers, bus drivers, the neighbors and the child’s friends’ parents. This does not mean that a parent should blindly believe the report of an adult, but it does indicate to a child that just because Mom or Dad aren’t around it doesn’t mean they are off the hook in terms of behavior. Further, if there are specific standards that parents want to maintain outside the confines of the house, they should be communicated to the adults acting in loco parentis.
Third, if a child violates standards, they should be the one to make any needed preparations. For instance, if your child has broken the toy of another child, he should be made to go to that child’s home, own up to their actions to the child’s parents, pay for the broken toy (or provide another toy from his own collection) and apologize to the child. Mom or Dad (preferably both) need to be in attendance. Repentance and reparation are difficult for adults; the distress created by the act of repentance will be enough of a disincentive that the child will think twice about misbehaving again. As for the idea that this will just make the child lie about their behavior, if parents keep their lines of communication open and willingly listen to all sides of the story, the truth eventually comes out every time.
Fourth, parents need to instill a sense of pride in their child, and let them know that they believe the child is perfectly capable of living within the standards. This reinforces the idea that the parents love the child, believe in the child’s worth, and expect the best from him or her. The consequence of misbehavior is that the child judges himself, and generally measures their own misdeed in a way that is more stringent than the parent would. At that point, parents can gently guide the child to turn things around, do the right thing, and make any reparations that are needed. Building a conscience within a child is the best way to ensure that a child will stay on the straight and narrow for life.
Finally, parents should make a habit of catching their child doing something right. Accountability doesn’t always involve hurt feelings and punishment – it can also involve compliments for actions the child takes for granted or doesn’t report because his or her friends didn’t think that what they did was “cool.” Kindness toward a handicapped child, for example, may not get applauded by a child’s peers, but should be recognized by parents if they hear about it or witness it. Children should be held accountable in a positive way for apologizing to someone they’ve hurt without being prodded, returning lost property to its rightful owner, helping out with tasks when there is no tangible reward or similar behavior. Accountability needs to be tempered with fairness and a judicious helping of positive reinforcement.