"He made me do it." We hear it all the time. "She started it." Kids have a tendency to blame others for their own actions all the time and it starts at an early age. Regardless of the type of punishment children receives, they don't want to be held accountable for their actions at all. However, this isn't limited to children, either. Watch the news or read a newspaper and it's obvious adults won't always admit guilt even in a courtroom.
It's important to teach children how to own their mistakes so they will continue doing so as adults. Being raised with an understanding that consequences follow actions causes people to be careful about their choices and actions. When children grow up with a sense that they can get away with passing responsibility off to others, it makes it easier for them to get involved in a life of crime.
Start at a young age
It's necessary to teach children to own their mistakes at an early age. Mistakes are merely poor judgement calls, which can range from spilling milk on accident to purposeful disobedience. Make sure to listen to all sides of a situation when it presents itself. Decide if it was an accident or if it was done on purpose. In the case of a child spilling milk and not wanting to tell the parent, the child needs to know it was an accident.
We all make mistakes. Set limits on the child pouring milk by himself if it is a continuous problem. Otherwise, offer tips on how to avoid a spill the next time. Hold the child accountable for lying, though. Let him know it is not acceptable to lie, whether he thinks he'll get in trouble or not. Keep reinforcing this as soon as lying surfaces, which can happen as young as age two if he has learned from older siblings. Have the child help clean up the mess, then move on
In situations where it's obvious something was done on purpose, even in young children, set consequences. This could just be cleaning up the mess made, time-outs or loss of privileges. Be consistent, and be patient. Small children love to test the limits to see what they can get away with and what they can't. Always explain the rules and the consequences to them with each occurrence.
Learning to make responsible choices
Regardless of the age of the child, it's never enough to just have consequences. Children need to be taught how to make good choices. They need to learn how their choices affect everyone else around them. When a situation has come up that warrants a disciplinary act, sit and talk with the child. Ask why they made the choices they made. Discuss options that could have been taken.
Establish methods to handle things such as anger that could have provoked the child's response. Give her tools to handle the emotions she's feeling instead of just taking away privileges. Be honest with her and tell her when she's expressing feelings that are common so she doesn't feel like it's just her.
Parents are never "out to get" their children. Sometimes, it can feel that way to the child. Keep the rules simple and ensure that the consequences relate to the crime committed. Being grounded for a week is not an acceptable consequence for forgetting to do something he was told to do. Continually disobeying would warrant restrictions for a week. Base the consequence on the severity of the action.
If a child admits wrong doing, consider giving a lesser punishment. For example, the child made a poor, impulsive decision to steal a dollar out of Mom's purse to buy something. Afterwards, she realizes she made a mistake and admits what she does. She still needs to be held accountable for the theft, but needs to be rewarded for admitting what she did. The best way to do this is give a lesser penalty and explain to her why it's important to be held accountable for what she did, but that she should be proud of herself for telling the truth.
A great way to teach children to own their mistakes is to demand retribution. Little Bobby just hit a ball and broke the neighbor's window. He comes running into the house and his mother sees instantly that he's done something wrong. After talking to him, she realizes what happened. Her punishment is to have him walk to the neighbor's house with her and explain what he did. Then, she has him do chores for the neighbor to pay for the broken window. He's not losing any privileges because what he did was an accident. He is paying for the damages he did, which is showing responsibility, or owning his mistakes.
Set an example
No matter how hard parents try to teach their children accountability, if they aren't setting an example, they are fighting an uphill battle. Children learn from their parents and are more likely to handle situations the same way as the parents. Parents need to be careful what they say and how they act when they are angry. They need to exhibit responsibility and how to make good choices. Lying to a police officer to get out of a ticket when the child is in the back seat is showing them it's acceptable behavior to lie when they don't want to get in trouble.
Don't defend so easily
Children learn real quick how to manipulate the truth to get the parents' sympathies. It's easy for the parenting instinct for protecting the child to come out, only believing the child's side of the story. When this happens, it's teaching the child to lie to avoid responsibility, knowing that the parent will inadvertently help them. Whether it be that the teacher is picking on her, a child is being mean to her and she isn't doing anything at all or the bus driver gave her referrals when she wasn't doing anything, a parent needs to remain calm and find out exactly what is going on. Talk to anyone else involved and get their side of the story.
Weigh that out with what the child is stating and take into account the child's history of telling the truth or lying. Confront the child with what has been learned and give them the opportunity to admit any wrong doing before automatically taking her side. If it is determined she is telling the truth, handle it responsibly, going through the chain of command to remedy the situation. If she has done things to get in trouble, hold her accountable for her role in the situation.
A child is capable of learning to own his mistakes even in a society that shrugs responsibility for actions onto other people. Teaching them to be careful about their choices and to admit guilt when they have made a mistake helps prepare them for adulthood. Instilling a sense of accountability benefits everyone in society.