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Teaching kids responsibility & holding kids accountable. Why it is so important?

A boy climbing up a climbing wall.

Experienced teachers share things parents should do to set their kids up for success – Part 6 of 10

There are a multitude of factors that determine a child’s academic success. However, there are indications that developing a sense of responsibility and accountability can have a significant impact on the quality of a child’s school performance. Being accountable means being responsible for something and ultimately being answerable for your actions.

So why is it that accountability & responsibility have such a great impact on a child’s school performance? It is all about the behaviour that this elicits. It is a very powerful thing for a child to realize that they can be positively in control of their lives. It’s life-altering for a child to discover that by choosing and directing their behaviour responsibly, they can determine the outcomes of their situation, day, week, month and year.

When a child takes on ownership and responsibility, to some degree life stops happening to them and they start an amazing journey where they discover constructive control, where they are the driver, the navigator. Being responsible and taking ownership doesn’t happen overnight but slowly becomes the norm and a very satisfying part of growing up. This, however, does not happen overnight, nor does it happen of its own accord. Children need to be held accountable in order to learn about and develop a sense of responsibility. Children need to be given opportunities, at appropriate ages & stages, to develop skills and to be responsible and to own their behaviour and decisions, in age-appropriate situations, by the adults around them. In order to do so they need to learn about consequences.

The subtle yet damaging messages created by excuses

If we do not hold children accountable and continually make excuses for them – because we think that doing household chores is too hard for them or that handing in a project on time is too great an expectation of them – then we are sending them the message that we think they are not capable, cannot be trusted, are weaker than their peers and that they need someone else to do it for them, someone who can do it better than they can. They need someone with more power, who is less likely to be challenged, to make excuses on their behalf. Many parents are taking on this role more and more. This in itself is an enormously powerful, yet negative and damaging message, that can strongly impact a child’s view of themselves.

A child who is constantly getting these types of subtle yet negative messages from the adults around them about low expectations, cannot feel good about themselves, cannot feel capable or valued. Taking this path is how we end up with university professors receiving calls from loving mothers trying to explain why their adult child did not hand in an assignment by the due date, even though it was issued 2 months ago and their child is 22 years old. Yes, frighteningly this does happen more often than you would think. Some mothers arrive in person in order to be more persuasive.

Parents need to demonstrate, instruct and encourage

As parents and teachers, we need to demonstrate, instruct, encourage and allow children to be more responsible for their actions and accountable for the outcomes, their successes and their failures. They should own all of it – the good and the bad. This is not being mean to them. In no way do I mean for you to leave a young child out in the cold (emotionally), without support or supervision, to cope on their own. Obviously, teaching responsibility and holding them accountable is a process of imparting skills from a young age, while still being supportive. It involves actively teaching them life skills and then showing trust in them by giving them responsibilities in small manageable increments. This allows parents to gradually increase their child’s responsibilities in a way that allows them to cope, in a way that builds their confidence and pride in their growing independence. What it doesn’t mean is making excuses for children when they could have, and should have, been responsible and accountable.

One thing to note is that to a large degree children learn responsibility and accountability by observing the adults around them. If the adults around them are not taking ownership, not being responsible or not holding themselves personally accountable for their own behaviours and decisions and not being good role-models, then children will NOT learn about either easily. The adults have to lead by example.

Ways to teach life skills and encourage children to take responsibility and be accountable:

  • Pick up their own toys
  • Clean up their own mess (age-appropriate)
  • Get dressed on their own.
  • Be ready on time for school with some supervision.
  • Pack their own bags the night before school.
  • Make their own beds.
  • They should know what is required of them for homework.
  • Complete projects on time.
  • Seek additional help when necessary.
  • Ask questions in class.
  • Monitor their own learning and progress.
  • Do chores at home.
  • Be responsible for taking care of a family pet.
  • Take care of their own belongings like jersey’s, lunch boxes and hats.
  • Be responsible for keeping one area of the house neat, tidy & organized.
  • Outline the consequences and carry them out when necessary – be consistent.
  • Show them what personal accountability looks like by doing it ourselves.
  • Create a safe space for them to admit that they messed up, take it on the chin, offer no excuses and make reparations. Making mistakes and failing is part of life. Learning how to deal with failure is also a key life skill that needs to be learnt.

The bottom line is that whether a child is held accountable or not is up to the parents and their chosen parenting style. If your child is 10 years old and still can’t dress himself/herself, whose fault is it? Who should be held accountable here? Most certainly the parent.

Children who have learned to take ownership and responsibility for themselves tend to…

  • get actively involved at school
  • develop organizational skills
  • be neat and tidy
  • be punctual
  • meet deadlines
  • be good at time management
  • plan ahead
  • have their own academic goals
  • be better behaved
  • push themselves to improve in areas they feel matter the most
  • have confidence in their own ability & capabilities
  • take pride in all that they do
  • have a sense of belonging
  • have better people skills and understand their peers better
  • feel less helplessness in the face of adversity
  • work well in groups
  • know what the consequences are
  • show greater leadership skills
  • care about having a healthy relationship with authority figures because they feel confident
  • go out into the world without failing or falling face down

It is a no brainer to me that this is what a parent would want for their child. Why are we then seeing so much ‘helicopter’ parenting and babying where children are being raised to be irresponsible & unaccountable, where parents arrive with a list of excuses on behalf of the child or even worse do the work themselves and pass it off as if it is the child’s work? This essentially teaches the child to lie but once again teaches the child that he/she is not capable of doing the work.

An important distinction to remember is that responsibility can be shared but accountability cannot.

Respect your children enough to hold them accountable.

Further reading:

How to teach your kids to value personal accountability by Barbara Leech
https://afineparent.com/building-character/personal-accountability.html

How to Hold Your Children Accountable for Their Actions by Laci Swann
https://www.lightworkers.com/hold-children-accountable-actions/

Teach Your Child Responsibility — 7 Tips to Get Started by James Lehman
https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/teflon-kids-why-children-avoid-responsibility-and-how-to-hold-them-accountable/

Nine Tips for Teaching Kids Responsibility by Alonna Friedman
https://www.care.com/c/stories/5219/9-tips-for-teaching-kids-responsibility/

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