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Teaching Accountability to Kids

Teaching Accountability to Kids

Over the past week we’ve been hosting a Q&A series with Ileen Henderson, our recent guest on our Sparking Empathy webinar and national director of Bright Spaces, part of the Bright Horizons Foundation for Children.

For the series, Ileen has been answering your parenting questions about kindness and empathy, including at what age does a child start to learn empathy? and when can kids first understand the importance of volunteering? Today, in the last post of the series, Ileen answers one more question about ways to help a child learn accountability:

How can you help a child take more accountability for his or her own actions?

Accountability is defined as “the obligation to bear the consequences for failure to perform as expected.” In this definition, we can learn the best way to build this into parenting. Accountability and consequences are both important to remember. Accountability relies on a child understanding what is expected. Clear, developmentally appropriate guidelines for behavior are necessary from the earliest years. This set of messages, holds the answer for teaching a child first, how to know what is expected, and then to help a child when they fail to achieve the expectation.

As with everything in parenting, this starts with a parent reflecting on themselves. Have I clearly articulated what the expectation of behavior is to my child? This means using simple and unambiguous words, using body language and other nonverbal cues and modeling the behavior yourself. For instance, when you ask a three-year-old to be good at school, what does that mean to him? Have you defined what ‘good’ looks like in that setting? Does it account for all the variables that he may encounter during the day at school? If you instead say, ‘be kind to other children today’, does he know what that expectation looks like? If he has ideas based on your prior conversations about what the expectations for good, or kind, look like, and if he has seen you be good or kind in similar situations, and if he is developmentally able to handle those expectations, then you have the beginning of accountability. If you feel you have laid the groundwork for the expectations, she understands them and still does not achieve them, and then you have more work to do. First, always acknowledge the child’s emotions and intentions. None of us is perfect and hearing your acknowledgment goes a long way to feeling understood and will build your child’s desire to get it right next time.  

If your child hurts another child you can begin with, “I see you are sad and frustrated with yourself. It can be very hard to control your body when you are angry. Many people struggle with this, too.”

Then help your children take another perspective on the situation. “Let’s talk about how the other child felt when you hurt him. What are some other ways you could have handled that situation? What do you think you can do to help him to feel better?” Not too much talk, keep it short and sweet.

Finally, finish the conversation with an appropriate consequence that is logical to the event, that is not a surprise to your child and that you can follow through with. “You were angry and your hurt your friend.  You feel sad and know that you will talk to your friend next time. You decided to give your friend a hug to feel better. You need to stop playing the game now because you were not able to play safely. Tomorrow you can play again and I know you will make better choices. What other activity would you like to choose now?”

In that encounter, you have ensured that the child clearly understands the expectations. You have validated her feelings but not her actions and helped her to see the event through the other person’s eyes and decide on a way to help the other child to feel better. You have helped your child think of alternative strategies for next time BUT you have also required that they experience the logical consequence of their behavior. This may seem overly complicated but the more you use this technique early in your parenting, the less you will need to use it. Hopefully, as your child gets older, he will come to you and say, “I messed up. I lost my temper. I know what I will do differently and I have helped my friend.” Then you may have to apply the logical consequence or they may do it themselves. Creating this internal conversation for your child builds the very important skills of self-control, problem-solving, self-awareness and accountability.

Ileen Henderson is the national director of Bright Spaces, part of the Bright Horizons Foundation for Children. She has been a key Bright Spaces staff member since October 2011 and a volunteer leader since 2002, when she served as project leader for the 20-site Philadelphia Bright Space Project. She is also the creator and CEO of My Baby’s First Teacher, a parenting program for homeless mothers.

Bright Horizons Parent Podcast

Hear from early childhood experts Ellen Galinsky, the Chief Science Officer at the Bezos Family Foundation and Executive Director at Mind in the Making, and Rachel Robertson, the Education and Development Vice President at Bright Horizons, as they discuss common parenting challenges and the science behind parenting that can turn frustration into great skills for life.

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