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?