If you spend much time on EmpoweringParents.com, you’ve probably noticed that we talk a lot about “accountability.”
But have you ever wondered what it means to hold your child accountable? It’s an excellent question and one that we receive often during online parent coaching.
When we talk about accountability with our kids, we are most concerned about ensuring that the following two things happen every day with your child.
First, how will you ensure that your child takes full responsibility for his actions after the fact—after the bad behavior occurs.
And second, how can you get your child to think about his responsibility for his actions before the bad behavior occurs so that he won’t behave badly in the first place.
Ultimately, we want to promote a system of responsibility and accountability for actions in our home. James Lehman, creator of The Total Transformation® child behavior program, calls this a “culture of accountability.” A culture of accountability means the following:
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.
Related content: Kids, Blaming and Apologies: Everything after “But” is Bull
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. He will say things like “She wouldn’t get off the computer and I wanted to use it…” Or “He wouldn’t move, so I pushed him…”
But if you create a true 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. Everyone has to follow the rules. If name-calling is against the rules—and it should be—then just because he was using the computer doesn’t mean he can call his sister foul names. In other words, blaming someone else doesn’t change the rules.
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. As a result, many of the light bulbs arrived damaged and broken.
Your boss will likely hold you accountable for the breakage. You may have an excuse, but your boss doesn’t want to hear it. 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 not like it, but you ultimately understand. And, you know that if it keeps happening, you won’t have a job for long.
So, you may have to 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 Lehman talks about in The Total Transformation® when he says you need to hold your children accountable. You set rules and expectations for your child, and they are responsible for following those rules and meeting those expectations. If not, they do not get paid with the privileges and rewards they value. Again, blaming others or acting inappropriately does not absolve 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?”
You can’t make your child want to do something he doesn’t want to do. You can, however, use effective rewards and consequences to encourage him to do it anyway. After all, learning to be an adult includes learning to do things you don’t necessarily want to do.
If you have a rule in your home of no name-calling, here’s how you can set clear expectations and limits around it. Tell your child the following:
“In this house, we don’t call people names. It doesn’t matter if someone makes you 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 electronics time.”
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 blaming 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.
So, be clear about the rules. And be clear about what each person can expect to see happen if they choose not to follow those rules. And finally, post the rules on the refrigerator as a daily reminder to all.
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 to 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 Lehman 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?”
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 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, tell your child:
“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.
Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work
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. Your child will learn to accept responsibility for meeting the expectations of your family, and he will learn to develop the skills needed 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 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. This will happen 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. They may think that you will eventually give in. But don’t give in. Be consistent. And be patient.
As James Lehman 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.
Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former Empowering Parents Parent Coach, speaker and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at refugeingrief.com, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.