Teaching Children to Take Responsibility for Their Actions

My son’s only real responsibility was to take out the trash. Every Monday night the trash had to be taken to the end of the driveway.

This was a regular occurrence. Every Tuesday morning the trash truck would come down the street and pick up the cans of trash.

It happened every single week. The only exceptions were the rare occurrence of a Tuesday holiday. Then all hell would break loose and the neighbors cans would line the street, the break of regular habits throwing off our tiny brains.

It wasn’t a hard chore to accomplish. Maybe tedious, but certainly didn’t take much courage.

Yet most Monday nights I would have to remind him about the trash. If I forgot, I would rouse his warm body from bed early Tuesday morning. This too was a regular occurrence. One he didn’t much appreciate.

The trash became my problem. A chore my son could not remember to do.

The forgetting wasn’t the problem. His taking responsibility for being forgetful was.

“Mom, you need to remind me to take out the trash! I can’t remember if you don’t remind me!” He would exclaim almost every week when HE forgot.

At first, it was funny. But over time, when events happen over and over and it is spun as a joke, it isn’t funny. The joke becomes the perpetrators way of trying to hide their irresponsible actions. Like someone who says something hurtful then tries to cover it up with a “I was just kidding” comment.

One cold early morning, as my son was moping back into the house from the ritual of his forgetfulness, he again tried to blame me for his ignoring the trash situation. “Mom, you need to remind me…”

“Just take responsibility, apologize and get on with it. I’m tired of being blamed for your problem” I angrily remarked, trying to put an end to his inability to remember and take responsibility for his lack of action. “The trash has to go out every single week. This isn’t new. We don’t ask much from you kids so I think you can handle this one chore.”

He looked up, surprised, but remembered the trash the following week. He learned. He took responsibility.

Parenting is hard. Though trash may not be the most important aspect of life, it isn’t about the trash. Chores are also about teaching so much more.

We live in an age where blame runs rampant. How do parents teach kids to take responsibility? I’m not sure my way worked.

Why is it so hard to take responsibility for our actions?

What do we have to lose when we blame someone else for problems we create then refuse to acknowledge?

How does taking responsibility help me or any of us grow as a human being?

When someone can’t take responsibility for their actions, like my son blaming me for his inability to drag the cans to the curb, he creates a mentality that he is a victim. Blaming me is a cover for his inability to show vulnerability.

A victim mentality is a habitual way to make yourself the one who is being treated unfairly.

He saw me as treating him badly because I wouldn’t let him off the hook for trash removal. He wanted to sleep in and be taken care of by me. Why he does this, only he knows. If this behavior is repeated, it becomes a strategy for him to feel safe, or to stay in his own comfort zone.

Maybe he can’t be perceived as being a failure. It’s making an excuse for being afraid to put yourself out there and accomplish something so you create a story that if circumstances were different (mom reminding him), then you could finish the task. Trash isn’t a big deal, but if this behavior is learned, in life it can become a really big obstacle to maintaining friends and relationships.

When we get comfortable in a story we have built around ourselves (I can’t do it because…), like a victim story, it’s hard to break free of what we perceive as failure. Failure, or not stepping into our own greatness becomes our go to habit. This habit fails to teach us that it is in our failures where our learning happens. Failure teaches us what doesn’t work. Failure is good. Taking responsibility for our failures teaches us and those around us that we are loving, humble and successful as humans.

Blaming others makes us cowards. It makes us think others see us for who we want to be seen as. But really, blame pushes others away because they can see through the veil of inauthentic cowardice.

Over time, staying a victim teaches the victim to feel helpless and out of control of their life. They may feel like life is out to get them, no one sees you and you deserve to suffer. Being helpless is choosing to let the outside world control you, creating lack of control in yourself.

If you don’t want to be a victim and you want to stand on your own two feet in life, try these ideas:

1. First, stop blaming everyone else when you can’t take out the trash, so to speak. Blame is only a temporary relief. You are responsible for you. If you don’t follow through with a commitment, or taking out the trash, that’s on you.

2. Try to see the good in your life. Even when you feel the sky is falling, look for the good in the falling sky. Maybe it’s a glorious blue color. It’s hard to stay miserable when you realize there is at least one thing in life that makes it good. When you can see the one thing, more possibilities and things you can be grateful for will start to show up.

3. Give up trying to control everything. Control is uncontrollable. The more you try to control, the more you have to pretend to stay within the confines of the manufactured and controlled environment you have created. Others, whether you believe it or not, cannot be controlled. In time, even children who were once under control break free of controlling parents. When we try and control our surroundings, it creates a feeling of paranoia, like everyone is out to get us. When we lose the control and give ourselves up to experiencing our surroundings, we are free to allow life to happen, not make life happen to us.

Eventually, this false feeling of control will create fear and anger. Where do we think this anger inside us comes from? Anger makes us lash out at others in instances when anger is uncalled for. Break free of the anger and practice acts of kindness to yourself and others. Forgive yourself for what you are feeling. Feelings ebb and flow but with persistence, the feeling of being unworthy can be shifted to feelings of worthiness if we learn to practice kindness first to ourselves, then to others.

Victim mentality creates low self-esteem. Taking out the trash was teaching my son to care for himself and his surroundings. By avoiding taking care of himself, he learned to rely heavily on others. Low self esteem rises from the feeling we can’t take care of ourselves. When parents or loved ones invalidate our feelings this also creates fear that we cannot take care of ourselves in the real world. When we step into that fear and away from the victim mentality, we usually find that though life is hard, with persistence it can be lived in our own reality. Not the reality of those who controlled us or didn’t hear us.

Victims quit living. Victims expect others to take care of them, complaining when life doesn’t go their way.

Resilience is moving forward through victimhood and facing life with the confidence to back up our decisions.

If you think you are always a victim, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you wonder how long it will take before you feel good or do you decide to feel good even when things aren’t great. And do you really, internally believe what you tell yourself? If you say one thing out loud and believe another inside, one of those things needs to be shifted so they are in synchronicity. Do you quit and give up when faced with adversity or do you keep moving?
  2. Do you wallow and feel sorry for yourself or do you comfort others?
  3. Do you feel jealousy and envy at others accomplishments or are you inspired by your friends good fortunes?
  4. Do you focus on your pain and relive it over and over or do you remember the joy of your past experiences?
  5. Do you seek revenge for grievances perceived to be against you or do you absolve them of their wrongdoings and wish them well? Holding on to anger only punishes the person holding it. The other person rarely realizes anger is being pointed in their direction.
  6. Do you constantly argue about how unfair your life is or do you embrace living and keep moving forward with joy?

(Taken from Maxine Schnall’s book, What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger)

If you fall in line with the first half of any of those questions you may have a victim mentality and you can either seek help form a therapist or check in when you have these thoughts and begin to change them to thoughts of gratitude.

Which one will you be? Will you take out the trash like you’re asked to do or will you blame your Mom when the trash piles up in the garage? Will you ask yourself how blaming someone else is helping your cause or will you live in that false security of thinking you feel good about yourself by making someone else take the fall for you?

What will you take responsibility for? How will you choose to live?

The Story in Your Head

One night I took my dog out to do her business.

While she was wandering around our apartments dog park, I too was wandering around, waiting for her to finish, or start.

I walked along the edge of the park and noticed a large pile of poop someone had not cleaned up.

Immediately, my head started in with a story:

“Who’s the a$$hole that didn’t clean up after their dog?”

“They’re going to ruin it for everybody if they don’t clean up after themselves.”

“I’m going to leave it there so they can pick it up later. Jerks. Don’t they respect their park?”

The story kept evolving.

“I should write a note on the building bulletin board and let them all know what has been done. Call the person out for not taking responsibility. People are such jerks.”

“But of course if I do that they won’t care. They left it for someone else to clean up. Jerks.”

The story in my head kept evolving and morphing into crazy making.

Then I checked myself.

Really? Was this story true? I didn’t know. I really didn’t know anything about the poop. I was just spinning a story in my head.

The story in my head wasn’t real, it was just a story I was making up.

So I picked up the poop and threw it in the can. Done.

Or so I thought.

A few nights later, as habit has it, I found myself out in the dog park again. Again, I wandered around waiting for my dog to do her business. Another lady came out and we started talking. I noticed out of the corner of my eye, my dog squatting. I took note of placement and when the conversation ended, I went to clean up after my dog.

The poop was gone. Well, maybe not gone but I couldn’t find it. It was dark, the grass is green and poop is brown. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be or maybe the poop fairy cleaned it up for me.

Whatever the reason, it wasn’t there.

Then I remembered the story in my head from a few nights ago.

Hmmmm. Look at the big picture. Might have been a mistake. Or an accident.

Who was I to judge when I too was guilty?

I started to laugh at myself.

Here I had made this story up about the jerk who left the poop in the park and here I was, doing the same thing. Maybe they couldn’t find their poop either! Who knew!

I had judged something I knew nothing about.

Lesson learned.

I gathered up my dog and hoped that whoever found her poop wouldn’t judge me the way I had judged the other lost pile or poop. I wasn’t a bad dog owner, I was just human.

Are you a judger? Who does judging really have an effect on?

What to do when a Parent talks about Alimony and Child Support

“I probably shouldn’t tell you what Dad said” she started, while sitting at lunch.

“Said about what?” I asked.alimony

“What he said when I asked him for money to buy Christmas presents” she replied.

My kids lived through the divorce of their parents.

I can only imagine what that was like. My parents didn’t get divorced so the only thing I know about divorce is from my perspective of going through it. I had to deal with it the only way I knew how. By navigating through the chaos, confusion and having my heart broken by a man who one day said he loved me, and the next his head was spinning around like he was possessed. There isn’t a person alive who knows how to deal with something like this. You just have to get through it.

“I’m not sure I want to know. I can only imagine” I said. Of course I wanted to know, but I knew if she told me it would get complicated and I would need to defend myself or just roll my eyes. She must have mentioned it for a reason. It would be easier to pretend this kind of stuff doesn’t happen but it does, and she must want to say it to get it out of her. My Ex often makes one sentence comments to my children making sure I am not directly spoken about but at the same time making it clear he financially supports not only me, but them, trying to manipulate them to turn against me.

“He asked me if you gave me any money to buy presents. I told him you did but I needed to get more gifts and it wasn’t enough” she paused. “Then he told me how much he gives you for child support so he shouldn’t have to give me money to buy gifts” she finished, lowering her eyes.

According to legal website of my Ex husbands law firm, child support in our state is meant to cover:

• Housing – Without going through every sub-expense included in this category, some notable items are the mortgage principal and interest payments, home equity loans, property taxes, insurance, repairs, maintenance, rent, domestic services, and furniture.  There are several other sub-expenses also included, down to incredibly narrow items such as cleaning and toilet tissues, lawn products, clocks, luggage, and light fixtures.  Needless to say, it is an incredibly broad category.

Food – This includes all food and non-alcoholic beverages purchased for home consumption or purchased away from home (i.e., restaurants, school meals, catered affairs, and even vending machines and tips).  Non-food items, including alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, are not included.

Clothing – This includes all children’s clothing, including school uniforms, footwear (but, somehow not including footwear for sports), diapers, repairs or alterations to clothes or footwear, storage, dry cleaning, laundry, and, interestingly, watches and jewelry.

Transportation – The cost of owning or leasing a motor vehicle including, but not limited to, payments towards the principal cost, lease payments, finance charges (interest), gas, motor oil, insurance, maintenance and repairs.  Related items are also included, such as public transit, parking fees, license and registration fees, towing, tolls, and auto service clubs.  Notably, this category does not include, among other things, expenses associated with a motor vehicle purchased or leased for primary use by the child subject to the child support order at issue.

Unreimbursed Health Care Up to and Including $250 Per Child Per Year (medical and dental) – These are generally considered ordinary medical expenses, such as non-prescription drugs, co-pays or health care services, equipment or products.  The cost of adding a child to a health insurance policy is not included.

Entertainment – Fees, memberships and admissions to sports, recreational, or social events, lessons or instructions, movie rentals, televisions, mobile devices, sound equipment, pets, hobbies, toys, playground equipment, photographic equipment, film processing, video games, and recreational, exercise or sports equipment.  Notably, court orders and settlement agreements tend to separate out the cost for children’s activities and enrichment programs, including lessons, classes, and the like, as a separate expense from that included in the Guidelines figure.

Miscellaneous Items – Personal care products and services (e.g., hair, shaving, cosmetics), books and magazines, school supplies, cash contributions, personal insurance, and finance charges (except those for the mortgage and vehicle purchases).

The amount I receive in child support, as most divorced women know, does not begin to cover these costs. Christmas presents are the least of my worries.

While my Ex spends his time traveling between his multiple homes (one is international) in his choice of multiple expensive cars or on his yacht, I live quite comfortably but simply in a 2 bedroom apartment in the city with an 8 year old car.

My educated guess, when telling my daughter about my child support payments, he left out the part about how much money he makes, or that he wouldn’t be paying me alimony and child support if he couldn’t afford it. Making snarky comments about the mother of his children is manipulative. Allowing your children, when you can afford it, equal rights at Mom’s house, is doing the right thing. It’s showing up and modeling respect whether you want to or not. It’s being an adult. Being stingy and selfish tells your children who you really are.

My Ex didn’t tell my children how much he profited when he sold the business that was built during our 25 year marriage and sold shortly after the divorce papers were signed. He didn’t mention his multi-6-figure salary.  He didn’t mention how both of us took the financial risk to build that business, me supporting him for the first few years so he could work to get it started. In hindsight, the sale of the business looks a lot like fraud.

Here’s the deal, telling your children you pay support and alimony isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it has to be done in context, when the children are old enough to hear it, understand it, and want to know.

Making a snarky comment to try and put the other spouse in a bad light is immature, irresponsible and in time will come back to haunt the person being so selfish.

Divorce is complicated. Emotions are complicated. Anger and resentment is built when one party is not honest with the other. Pulling the children into this misguided resentment only does harm to the children. It rarely hurts the other spouse.

I tried really hard to just listen and not reply. But c’mon, a person can only take so much.

First, I let my daughter know, in very fast English as my emotions rose, that her father has no right to tell her the amount of money he pays me unless he tells the whole story. He could have just said no to the money request.

I asked my daughter if she understood what child support pays for.

“No Mom. Why would I know that? I shouldn’t have told you what he said” she whined back at me.

“When your Dad tells you that kind of information, he is telling you because he wants you to think something about me. What do you think that is?”

“I don’t know Mom. I don’t want to talk about this. I shouldn’t have said anything.” She replied again, getting defensive. My emotions were getting the better of me. The more often these abusive comments are made, the faster I am learning to stop talking. It’s taken me a while to learn this lesson and it’s really hard to practice.

Our three children are getting to the ages they can begin to understand the complexities of divorce. As they enter and exit their 20’s they are beginning to see it isn’t as simple as it looked 10 years ago.

I try to handle these complexities by only mentioning certain situations as they arise, when I see the inequities come up. It’s really hard and it’s a fine line to walk. I often fall off the line!

There isn’t very much information available on how to handle these situations because it’s so complicated. Here are a my opinions of a few examples of why to tell and why not to tell your children about finances:

  • Children are intrinsically intelligent. They know which parent shows up to fill their needs and which parent buys their love. Be the parent who fills their needs. Be there when they need you. Hug them and tell them they are loved.  Show up. Follow through. Speak when asked, don’t lecture. But don’t be a doormat. Speak when necessary. This is good advice I often don’t follow myself. When I fall off the smart cart, I forgive myself and try harder the next time.
  • As small children, money is truly only a means to meet their basic needs. In reality, though we adults think differently, toys are irrelevant. Fancy trips aren’t really for the children, they are to show off that the parent buying the stuff has ‘more’. What is more? More time to spend with the children or on the children? Which ‘spending’ pattern matters most? Try to remember back to your childhood and what really mattered to you. Was it the fancy hotel or a walk together in a park? Do what matters.
  • If you choose to tell them at the appropriate time and at the appropriate age or maturity level, make sure you tell them both sides. Don’t mention how much you pay your spouse when you don’t mention your income. Not having all the information makes the information baseless. If you make an exorbitant amount of money and you aren’t paying the fair share it would be advisable for you to keep quiet. If you can’t pay your bills and your spouse is vacationing, you may want to revisit the divorce decree or you may not know the whole story. Credit cards go a long way and can make anyone look rich for a short period of time (years). This is complicated, think before you speak. Don’t say what you don’t know. Assumptions aren’t always fact.
  • What your children need to see modeled in behavior is mutual respect for the other parent. They can’t learn respect when it is not shown. Having said that, respect is earned, not demanded. It took me years to say kind things about my Ex in front of my children so I tried to say nothing. Now, after time and therapy has helped me heal, I can tell them how creative, kind and fun he was when we were first married. I can compliment his ability to persevere and stick with his drive to build a business. I can tell them stories of what he was like as a teenager and the fun we had together. It takes time to heal. During that time, try as hard as you can, not to speak ill of the other parent. We all fail. Failing is what makes us human. When you do fail, forgive yourself and try again.
  • Children are self-centered. When one parent buys them stuff, when young, that stuff will make them temporarily happy. Over time, they will see which parent was supporting which, and that isn’t always about money. Be patient, time does have a way to work things out.
  • If when you talk about your Ex, it brings up emotional feelings in your body, it is best to say nothing.That emotion, whatever it is, will come out in your tone fo voice. If you can’t feel emotion (think addiction) then you will say what you want without fear of consequences. That too will come out in the wash. Be patient.
  • Mediation with the other parent is suggested if both parents are willing to have an open and honest conversation. This gets complicated when the divorce wasn’t amicable or equitable. In my case, I was advised by council and my therapist to stay away from my controlling Ex. There was too much deceit during the divorce that is unresolved. If you can talk to your Ex and find a middle ground, I would highly suggest doing so.
  • Your children will one day be adults and look back at the situation and see it for what it was, not what one parent wanted it to be. Remember that.

When confronted with a complicated situation, before saying anything PAUSE. During this pause, calm your reaction down. Clear your head. Then think of what the consequences might be regarding tone of voice and what you say. Who would your response serve? If it’s you, stay quiet. If it’s in the best interest of your child, calmly start the conversation. Let the conversation be more about listening then speaking. Hear what your child is feeling. Listen to what they are saying, not to what you want to hear.

Love them first. Make the conversation about them, not you. That maturity will eventually stand out.

When Best Friends Disappoint

My daughter texted me the other day to tell me she was sad.

“Why? Life?” I texted back.

“I feel like I don’t have a best friend” she replied. IMG_7490

The problem was, that over the past year, she and her best friend had some disagreements on matters of boys and life.

I’m not exactly sure what happened. Probably the same stuff that most of us experience with friends.

The ups and downs of getting to know someone.

As we age/grow, we change. All of us do unless there is a boulder on our heads and we live underground. In this case, we die.

As we age and grow, differences come up. Life happens and we either go with the flow, accepting others for who they are, allowing their behaviors into our fields of energy and accepting it for what it is; struggling with friend’s behaviors we don’t agree with and complaining about it; or we let go of those friends and move on.

Regardless of what was going on, my daughter wanted some help. Some concrete actions she could take to eliminate her internal struggle.

My daughter said she missed her friend.

I told her to tell her friend that.

She tried to change the subject, saying her friend doesn’t hear her. Telling a friend you miss her is being vulnerable. Being vulnerable is uncomfortable for most of us. We don’t practice vulnerability enough. What if she tells her friend she misses her and her friend disses her? What if her friend doesn’t text back? What if she puts herself out there emotionally and her friend replies in an unkind manner?

What if her friend reaches back with kindness?

Why are our what if’s always negative? That negativity is usually unfounded.

I suggested, “Then maybe it’s time for a new best friend. Friends ebb and flow. I’m sitting with my high school friend now who I didn’t talk to for over 25 years. It all works out.”

“I guess,” she replied. “Maybe I’ll try one more time.”

“Just send a text that you miss her and see what happens.” I tried again.

She did! That simple text started a conversation. A conversation that never would have started had someone not taken action. It doesn’t matter who takes the first step, it’s taking the step, which is the hard part, that starts the shift.

I believe the person who takes the first step is the one that challenges the what if’s and chooses not to believe the negative story in their head.

Our texting goes on, my daughter changing the subject and talking about the upcoming holidays. I let it go, figuring when she’s ready she will talk.

The next day she texts: “I’m having coffee with my friend!”

“Wow! Have fun and keep it light” I replied.

“I doubt that’s gonna happen but I’ll try!” she said, knowing her young and inquisitive nature can’t let things go unanswered.

“Try really hard and tell her I say hello. You don’t always have to rehash sh*t and try and figure it out. Sometimes stuff just doesn’t figure itself out and you have to let it be.” I tried one more time. I know how my daughter gets on something and tries to make the other person bend to her point of view. She can’t grasp that others are not required to agree or even understand her point of view.

“I think we’re good now” she replied 30 minutes later.

Friends are like this. Friends come and go into and out of our lives. It takes effort on both sides to keep friendships going. Friendships are hard work and don’t always work out. We each get to decide for ourselves who and what kind of friends we surround ourselves with.

It is said by some wise person somewhere that we are a culmination of the 5 people closest to us. Choose those five people wisely. Do you want those five people to have the same values you do? Do you have the same interests? Do their actions support their words? What is important to you in a friend? Choose people to have in your life that stand for what you stand for.

We are all different. We all want different things. We grow in different ways.

It’s okay to go with the flow of friends. If it isn’t working out, sometimes it’s best to walk away and give it some time for both parties to readjust. It’s okay to reach out again and it’s okay not to reach out again.

If you get back together, great. If not, great. It might not have been meant to be.

And sometimes there’s nothing better than a little time to reset. Then, 20 years later when you run into that friend on the street it’s like a do over. Right back where you started. Like so many arguments, you have no idea what created the kerfuffle in the first place.