We serve a merciful and gracious God who asks us to be faithful and responsible in the various tasks to which we are called. We are to bear our own load (Galatians 6:5), to be faithful in the little things (Luke 16:10), and to consider the industrious and responsible ant (Proverbs 6:6). Despite these encouragements, our children often struggle to take responsibility for their own actions.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve had many conversations with students about discipline. Since I am rarely an eyewitness to the issue in questions, my first goal in these conversations is to find out from the student what actually happened. As all parents quickly learn, children generally avoid openly discussing their role in the problem. More often than not, a child will start with blaming the other person. Getting to the point where a student owns his or her actions typically requires a longer conversation.
Why is this so common? Like all sin-related issues, it goes back to the garden. When God asked Adam if he had eaten from the forbidden tree, he responded, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Not only did Adam blame the woman, he blamed God. The child who first wants to blame someone or something other than himself is simply pointing back to our father Adam. Failing to take responsibility is not a “new” problem.
We as adults are also prone to make excuses: I was late because… I didn’t get it done because… I got angry because… Too often we deflect and assign responsibility to circumstances, other people, or situations ostensibly outside of our control. With an understanding that we can all probably be encouraged to grow in this area, here are a few strategies that will help develop responsibility in our children:
- Teach your children not to give an excuse, even if they have a legitimate one. Certainly, there are times when a valid excuse is readily available, but we need to train our children out of the “auto response” of using the proverbial excuse. Even if the sun did make him drop the baseball, it’s better for a boy not to employ the excuse. Learning to not use excuses takes time and deliberate effort, but the sooner our children can learn this, the more likely they are to own their own problems. And the more they own their problems, the more responsible they become.
- Don’t allow children to throw someone else under the bus. Too frequently our children can blame a sibling, friend, teacher, or even a parent for their own failure. Don’t let your child get away with this. In my 7th grade study skills class one day, a few students forgot to bring their student handbook to class. When I asked them why they forgot, both started with, “My mom…” I didn’t allow them the excuse, and gently explained that it wasn’t their mom who was tasked with the responsibility to bring the handbook to class.
- Allow your child to fail and live with natural consequences. Natural consequences are a great teacher. If a child forgets to do an assignment, the grade is docked. A girl who loses her coat may have to use her own money to purchase a new one. A boy who fails to do his chores may not get time to play his favorite video game. Natural consequences can be painful for children, and sometimes even more painful for parents, which is why we often avoid them. But as we encourage our children to act responsibly, it becomes imperative that we emphatically allow natural consequences to teach valuable lessons in responsibility.
Indeed these are challenging practices. As adults, we need to model not giving excuses, not throwing other people under the bus, and living with the consequences of our choices. By being transparent and practicing such things, our children more quickly develop the character trait of responsibility.