The father's voice on the other end of the Parental Support Line sounded exhausted and overwhelmed when he said, "I know you told me that I have to hold my child accountable, but what exactly does that mean?”
It’s an excellent question, and one that we receive often on the Support Line. You’ve probably noticed that we talk a lot about “accountability” in Empowering Parents, as well. But have you ever wondered what it really means to hold your child accountable?
It's never too early—and it's never too late—to start a Culture of Accountability in your home.
I think it’s often helpful for parents to break big concepts down into bite-sized pieces in order to fully understand them. The word “accountable” itself means responsible, or taking responsibility for one’s actions. So when we’re talking about our kids, the question becomes, how will you make sure your child accounts for his or her actions? In other words, how will your child take responsibility for their behavior after the fact? And how can we help them think about that responsibility before they behave inappropriately?
Remember, we want to promote a system of responsibility and accountability for actions in our home. James Lehman calls it a “Culture of Accountability,”and it means that each member of the family is responsible for their own actions and behaviors, each person is responsible for following rules and expectations, and each is responsible for how they respond to stressful or frustrating situations. The simple truth is that most kids, and even some grown-ups, don’t take responsibility for their actions. Without accountability in place, kids blame others for their actions, refuse to follow rules they find unfair, and find ways to justify their behavior. For example, if your child breaks the house rules by calling his siblings rude names or being physically aggressive with them, he may be in the habit of blaming his brother or sister for his verbal abuse. You’ll hear things like “She wouldn’t get off the computer and I wanted to use it!” or “He wouldn’t move, so I pushed him.”
Understand this: when you have created a Culture of Accountability in your home, your child will know that no matter who started it or what happened first, everyone is responsible for their own behavior, and everyone has to follow the rules. Just because he was using the computer doesn’t mean he can call his sister foul names because blaming someone else doesn’t change the rules. As James says, “there is no excuse for abuse, period.”
Giving consequences and sticking to them is another important piece of the accountability puzzle: your child should know that if he chooses to break the rules, there will be a consequence for that choice. The bottom line is that no one in the family should get away with changing the rules to fit their needs or feelings.
Let me use an example from the work world. Let’s say it’s your job to make sure that a shipment of light bulbs arrives safely at their destination, but you were preoccupied and did not check the shipping boxes, and many of the light bulbs arrived damaged and broken. Your boss will likely hold you accountable for the breakage. You may not like it, but it is your job to meet those expectations—and if you don’t meet them, you won’t get paid. You can’t blame it on someone else, as it was your responsibility to check the boxes. Since your job’s Culture of Accountability says that you’re in charge of the light bulbs, you understand that you need to take responsibility for what happened. You may have to discuss what went wrong, and explain how you will make sure to do it differently next time—and you will probably have to work a little longer that day to fix the problem. That’s the heart of what it means to be responsible.
This is similar to what James is talking about when he says you need to hold your children accountable. You have rules and expectations for your child, and they are responsible for following those rules. If they don’t follow them, they do not get “paid” with the privileges and rewards they value. Again, blaming others or acting inappropriately does not relieve them of their responsibility to meet the expectations of the family.
You might be thinking “I know my child is responsible for meeting our expectations and following our rules, but how do I hold him accountable when he doesn’t want to be?” Remember, as James often says, you can’t get your child to want to do something he doesn’t want to do. You can, however, use effective parenting strategies in combination with rewards and consequences to get hold child accountable.
How to Be Clear about Expectations and Set Clear Limits
If you have a rule in your home of no name calling, here’s how you can set clear expectations and limits around it. Let your child know the following: “In this house, we don’t call people names. It doesn’t matter if someone makes you really angry, or if they started it. Each person is responsible for following the rules. If you call someone else names—remember, it doesn’t matter who started it—you will lose some of your game time today.”
Kids will often try to shift the focus to someone else. If this happens, you can say, “It sounds like you’re blaming your brother for the fact that you called him names.” Be sure all members of the family know that putting the blame on someone else will no longer be acceptable. In a Culture of Accountability, each person is responsible for their own actions, and for following the rules, no matter what someone else does. Be clear about the rules, and what each person can expect to see happen if they choose not to follow those rules.
Talk to Your Child and Help Them Figure out How They Will Follow the Rules
It isn’t enough to simply say “don’t do that;” kids often need to know what they can do, not just what they can’t do. Help them problem solve. Ask your acting-out child, “What can you do to help meet our rules and expectations?” Remember, it doesn’t matter if they think the expectations are fair or not; they simply need to take responsibility for meeting them. Remind your child: “It’s your responsibility to control your temper. Just because your brother is bothering you does not mean you can push him. If your brother is annoying you, and you’re tempted to call him names, what can you do instead?” You might have your child write down a list of the things they can do to help themselves follow the rules when they are tempted to break them.
Once your children have come up with ways they will help themselves follow the rules, you can use what James calls “cueing” – giving a reminder of what is expected. When you hear your child start to get annoyed, you might say, “Remember what we’ve been talking about. You are responsible for following the rules. Why don’t you go check your list of things that you’re going to do when you’re having trouble following the rules?” To help create that Culture of Accountability for everyone, you might also consider posting the family rules in a public area in your home, like the refrigerator door.
Use Consequences to Hold Your Child Accountable
Once you have clarified the rules and helped your child come up with some ideas on how he might behave, let him know what he can expect to see happen if he still chooses to break the rules. Remember, tie the consequences to your child’s behavior, and keep them short-term. For example, let your child know, “If you choose to call your brother names, you will lose access to your electronics until you can speak appropriately for two hours.” Be sure to follow through with the consequences you set; remember, without clear consequences, there is no real incentive for your child to become accountable.
The good news is that creating a Culture of Accountability is a very reachable goal for parents. In fact, effective parenting helps your child learn to be accountable—to both accept responsibility for meeting the expectations of your family, and to develop the skills they need to meet those expectations. And when all the members of your family start becoming accountable to each other, your kids will have a clear understanding of the rules and will be much more motivated to uphold them. You will even see your kids trying to follow the rules when they don’t want to do so, because they will know that they will be held responsible for their choices, no matter how they feel or what excuses they give you.
Realize that when you first try to put the Culture of Accountability into place in your home, your kids may fail to meet their responsibilities, even with clear limits and good problem solving techniques. It will take practice to help them understand that they will be held accountable for their actions. But as James says, “parents are the solution, not the problem.” You can teach your children the skills they need to take responsibility in their lives now, and for their future. With consistency and practice, your kids will learn that they are responsible for their actions and behaviors. It’s never too early—and it’s never too late—to start a Culture of Accountability in your home.