Anne Franck once said that “Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.” She was speaking about personal accountability. Every kid needs to know that actions have consequences and that he is responsible for his behavior. Failing to hold our kids accountable for their actions and their behavior can have a far-reaching impact on their ability to be personally accountable in the childhood years and beyond.
Even the youngest kids benefit from knowing they are responsible for their behavior. In other words, over protecting our kids and refusing to give them an opportunity to right their wrongs when necessary does them no favors.
Teaching personal accountability means teaching your kid that mistakes happen, but he is responsible for making amends when those mistakes happen. It means teaching him to right his wrongs, whether or not someone is watching. It means teaching our kids that they cannot always control how things work out, but they can make things better or at least avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.
Here are a few tips to help strengthen your kid’s culture of personal accountability.
1 | Don’t be a “sometimes” parent
It’s not easy for kids to understand what is expected of them when we’re inconsistent. You don’t have to be strict about each and every little thing but having clear expectations makes it easier for your kids to develop accountability for their behavior.
The first step means reflecting on the values that matter most to you and your family and parenting in ways that are consistent with those values. It means deciding what is negotiable and what is not.
It’s easier to guide your kid’s behavior when he knows exactly what is expected of him and the consequences of misbehavior. It’s also easier to make your kid accountable when he’s aware of your non-negotiable values.
2 | Allow kids to be responsible for their actions
We’re often too quick to rescue our kids even when holding them accountable for their actions can help teach them to make amends when things go wrong. When your four-year-old spills her glass of water on the table, don’t make a fuss. Giving a rug to clean up or asking her to help you clean up teaches her that spilling water is normal, but cleaning the mess up is also normal.
Science suggests that kids who regularly participate in household chores develop important skills such as responsibility and accountability. The also become more self-reliant. Giving your kids age-appropriate chores will lead to social, emotional and academic benefits.
Developing your kid’s accountability also means encouraging her to participate in the decision-making process. It has been proven that kids feel more accountable for their behavior when they are involved in decision-making and feel them that their opinions matter.
3 | Personal responsibility is not synonymous with punishing kids
Teaching kids personal responsibility has nothing to do with punishment. It’s about teaching them to make amends, both for intentional and unintentional behavior. When you tell your kid, “It’s okay, you can use the broom to sweep it up,” you avoid making your kid feel defensive or clumsy because of his behavior. You simply show him that these things happen and give him a solution to make amends.
4 | Propose developmentally appropriate choices
Power struggles are almost synonymous with parenting! But many power struggles can be solved when we realize that kid’s behavior is rarely about us. What we perceive as misbehavior is not always an attempt to challenge our power. Your kid will behave as kids the world over do at that particular age.
That said, letting “kids be kids” doesn’t mean letting them get away with anything. It is important to clearly distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior and to propose age-appropriate consequences. A two-year-old won’t sweep the food she’s dropped on the floor by herself but she can bring the dustpan and help clean up the mess.
Age-appropriate choices also matter when selecting the chores kids can participate in. Kids below age three are able to tidy up and place their toys in the appropriate toy rack or even help dust surfaces. From age three, kids can pick out their clothes and get dressed by themselves or help set and clear the table.
5 | Walk the talk
The best way to teach kids about personal accountability is by doing as you say. Don’t talk to your kid about being accountable, be accountable yourself. When your kids see you apologize, apologizing for their mistakes becomes a normal habit. When they see you make amends, they learn that it is normal to be accountable for one’s behavior. When they see you cleaning up after your messes, they learn to clean up after theirs.
Teaching kids about personal accountability is really about letting them know that they alone are responsible for their actions, but that you are there should they need your help.
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An earlier version of this post appeared on parent.co