This week's article summary is How to Teach Kids the Importance of Accountability.
At our back-to-school TTT, I stressed to our students how important responsibility is to being a contributing community member.
Last week’s article summary focused on resilience, which to me is also an aspect of responsibility: things don’t always work out the way we plan and hope; hence when facing hardships, we need to keep a positive frame of mind, regroup, re-strategize, and try again.
Like resilience, accountability develops over time with much practice as well as guidance and oversight from adults.
While there is nothing novel in the recommendations below, they are reminders of how intentional and patient parents and teachers need to be in order to develop accountability in our children.
We’re living in a time and place in which it often seems the people in charge have no sense of accountability. Adults don’t seem to understand the consequences of their actions and refuse to acknowledge when they’ve made mistakes. And as always, our children are watching. So perhaps now, more than ever, is the time for parents to focus on teaching kids about accountability.
Accountability is a way to take responsibility for actions you’re in charge of. By teaching kids personal accountability, you’re teaching them that mistakes happen and when those mistakes happen, it’s important to learn to fix or grow from them.
Here are some ways parents and teachers can create a culture of accountability.
Start small: Accountability can start when kids are toddlers, e.g., “We can play with the puzzle but when we’re all done, we need to clean it up.” Too often parents resort to just cleaning it up themselves because it’s faster and easier that way. But it’s better to provide opportunities for kids to take ownership of their own little responsibilities. When you start early, you start setting the foundation that it’s important to be accountable.
Give more responsibilities: As kids get older, you can give them more things to be responsible for. The key is to make sure the tasks are developmentally appropriate, such as asking toddlers to pick up their toys and books at the end of the day. For kids that might be a little bit older, it could look like packing your own lunch, packing your own backpack, making your bed, or putting all of your dirty clothes in the hamper. Kids begin to understand that they do have responsibilities, and the choices they make ultimately have consequences. It also teaches them free will and how to be responsible citizens of society ― it’s ‘I do have a part in what happens in the world.
Teach them about consequences: Accountability means taking ownership of the decisions and the choices you make and accepting whatever consequences those choices come with. It’s important for every young child to learn so that they understand cause and effect and how the choices they make have consequences, positive or negative. There are many everyday opportunities for kids to make decisions or take actions and then experience the natural consequences of those choices. For example, don’t fight them if they don’t want to take a coat, but then when they moan about being cold or wet, simply explain that that is why you suggested taking a coat in the first instance, but that it was their decision not to bother. Perhaps they might not want to eat their lunch. There’s no need to start an argument or fight about it, but just make it clear there’s nothing else to eat until dinnertime and so if they are hungry, they will have to deal with it. Children should also understand that even when they experience negative consequences resulting from their choices, there’s always an opportunity to make things better or try again next time.
Offer positive reinforcement: Don’t forget praise at all age levels. Parents tend to notice when kids mess up, but when they are doing really well, they ignore it. Catch them being good! Kids should learn that taking responsibility isn’t just about negative consequences, but about positive rewards as well.
Model accountability: I believe the primary way parents can teach their kids accountability every day is to model these behaviors. Parents can set an example by actively and openly practicing taking accountability for their actions. This can involve things like apologizing when they make mistakes, acknowledging when their behaviors or emotions are more extreme than a situation warrants, or identifying ways to make amends when they hurt others. Children are likely to repeat what they see others doing, so it is important for caregivers to be aware of the lessons kids are learning from them.
Show consistency: Consistency is the most important thing a parent can do while teaching their kids to be accountable ― consistency in how they handle times their child doesn’t take responsibility or creating and following family rules. Teach children to follow a routine, such as waking up, brushing teeth, making the bed, showering, etc. If you teach your child to follow a routine and they don’t follow through, it’s up to the parents to correct that action. In many cases, parents will often set rules but not follow through on the consequences once they set them. This behavior promotes irresponsibility by teaching kids that their behavior is acceptable and they don’t have to accept responsibility.
Discuss the feelings involved: Teaching a kid accountability can also help them learn how to process their feelings in an appropriate way. Everyone gets anxious, upset, angry and so forth. Being accountable involves learning to take charge of your emotions and process them in healthy ways, such as taking deep breaths or talking about how you feel. Encourage them to explore what triggers their feelings and ways they can accept responsibility for those triggers.
Be open-minded: Kids will make mistakes. Parents should take care to self-regulate and not have large emotional displays when their kids struggle with accountability. This can lead their child to be less likely to want to talk about times where accountability is difficult for them. Good mental health comes from correctly taking responsibility for things within their control ― for example, how hard they study for an exam ― while not taking responsibility for things they can’t control, like the disruption to schooling because of COVID, the lockdowns and home schooling. Children often have an egocentric mindset in that they think bad things happening around them are their fault.
Promote their independence: You want to build up an accountability system that eventually doesn’t rely on you. For example, you might want to help them with their organization skills or homework when they are in elementary school, but eventually, you want them to figure out how to check their assignments and organize their desks and rooms without your help. Promoting their independence and sense of accountability also empowers kids to take ownership of their successes and failures. This reduces children blaming other people for things that go wrong and also helps kids feel good about themselves when things do go well, which also builds confidence. Essentially, being accountable builds resiliency.