Accountability Anyone?

Published in the Ferndale Record, January 28, 2015

Last week a parent called my school office. He asked what time his son had PE and I told him. He said this:

“He forgot his PE clothes today and I was going to try and get them there before his class, but I can’t make it. Guess he’ll just have to remember to bring them next time. How will he ever learn this stuff if I do it for him?”

Thank you, sir, and well done.

Children don’t magically learn accountability, and they certainly don’t learn it when they’re constantly bailed out by a well meaning but misguided parent. I see this happen a lot.

You want children to succeed and you want to help where you can – always. But what you don’t want to do is take away their personal responsibility or live in fear that if you don’t do everything they ask, you’ll be unpopular and invite rebellion. Rebellion will happen no matter what you do. You’re going to have to trust me on this.

When one of my children was in high school, he had an extraordinarily hard time with morning wake up. He was in an early class and had to be out the door before 6:30am. It was common to hear his alarm blaring for 30 minutes before he turned it off, if he did at all.

I dutifully rousted him almost every day. I had things to do, too, but first on the list was getting him on his way. After months of this, I hated it and more importantly, realized he needed to learn the skills I was providing for him. I told him I wouldn’t be waking him up anymore.

One day I didn’t do it. His music came on loud and he slept. I got up, ready for work and left the house. Around 9:30am, he called my work place and said, “What just happened?” He mentioned what time it was, and asked why I hadn’t awakened him. I calmly invited him to remember the conversation we’d had. He wanted me to come take him to school because he simply couldn’t miss it. I told him I couldn’t because I was working. When he asked me what he was going to do, I said, “Figure it out.” He was furious.

But things eventually got better, like they always do when you require a child to do something important.

A 5-year-old appeared in my office and with a factual lilt in his voice announced, “I pooped my pants.”

To help those who come to me with such problems, I keep a drawer full of clean clothes and plastic bags. I also don’t ask a lot of questions. I give them what they need and send them to the nearest bathroom where they do the work. It happened twice to this little one during the week, and both times he was forthcoming, open and ready to take responsibility.

A few days later he brought me a homemade card. A crude drawing on the front was difficult to decipher, but I soon learned it was a pair of underpants. The sentiment on the inside was one of thanks for helping him. It was signed with Xs and Os.

Responsibility, accountability and gratitude: learn early, practice often.

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