When my son was nearly four, he had a small snow globe with Pluto the dog in it. Every time he’d touch it, I would say, “Be careful, it is glass so if it falls it will break.” Last night, he played with it intensely, not heeding my warnings.  It shattered. My initial response was one of exasperation, and quickly removed him from the area. I fought back the impulse to say, “I told you so; you didn’t listen.” but I am sure he still felt that negative energy as he broke down in tears and was inconsolable.  My husband and I both hugged him, and I stated, “It is my fault because I should have taken it away from you. I knew better.” I calmly suggested he go play with his miniature sandbox and he agreed that would make him feel better.

I think many would be taken back that I took responsibility in this situation (and I do this in most parenting situations). I frequently get comments about how will he learn responsibility? How will he learn if there are no consequences? I was first exposed to this response in a training for regulatory parenting*. The presenter gave numerous examples of “taking responsibility” topping with a story about her standing before a judge for a foster child and stating that she will take responsibility for his actions. These stories surprised me because they were counterintuitive to what I was raised to think, but her reasoning, and better yet the progress, sold me.

So I will apply the reasoning to the situation with my son. First off, let me stress that I did not take responsibility for him; I took responsibility for my behaviors. In the end, the parent is ideally the one with more knowledge, more experience, more skills, more resources and is responsible for meeting a child’s needs. I once read that when a child is born, the parent is in debt to the child because you chose to bring them into the world. The child is a gift.

By me taking responsibility, I decreased the negative energy (i.e. blame, disappointment, shame) being absorbed by my son as well as calmed myself down. All negative behavior comes from a state of stress (see Stress Model by Dr Bryan Post http://www.postinstitute.com/resources/the-stress-model.html ). When we are stressed, we usually react negatively and inappropriately. Scolding, raising my voice, or punishing would only add more stress, which a child (and most humans) can’t handle as well as escalate the situation. It also causes the child to focus on and retain negative feelings about the parent as well as lessen their ability to internalize the actual event and subsequent lesson. When we are calm, we are able to respond gently by becoming aware of as many variable as possible and problem solve effectively.

I was also role-modeling for my son how to take responsibility. There are complaints that there is not enough discipline and kids have no respect anymore. I think we need more positive and respectful role models.  I can’t tell you how many times I hear a parent or adult say “Don’t you raise your voice to me!” in an elevated and harsh tone, and the countless other times that same parent raises their voice to that same child or to a person driving by or to their partner. Or “Don’t bite your nails! Where are my cigarettes?” Or “Don’t you hit your sister!…I’ll spank you if…(later that night dad hits mom, or vice versa).

Dr. Bruce Perry commented once that if you speak English, you learn English; if speak rudeness, violence, anger, etc., then you learn rudeness, violence, anger, etc. How is one able to learn respect and empathy when they are rarely given any? Or only given when certain conditions are met depending on someone else’s mood?

I really wish adults could notice all the things they complain about or demand of their child or partner. Then really think about how many times you have committed a similar offense. I continue to do this experiment and I have yet to find a time I have NOT behaved or reacted in a similar way. I then choose to hold my complaint until I have successfully worked on changing my own behavior.  By then, I have gained enough insight and empathy for the person that the original complaint seems a bit unreasonable and even petty.

A child will learn more positive skills and values from a vulnerable and calm adult who changes their behavior to reflect their requests, than a defensive and angry person who threatens consequences. I know threats and punishments seem to work, but they work for the wrong reasons and promote more destruction than you can imagine, at so many levels.

So back to my son and the broken snow globe…after about 15 minutes, my son called to me. He said he felt better now and asked if I would help put his sand box away to keep it safe. I did and we went to his room for story time. He immediately went to the spot where he broke the globe and calmly said, “I am sorry mommy for breaking it.” I accepted his sincere apology and we got back to our bed time ritual.

teaching responsibility = role-modeling the ability to respond  appropriately

*The training I went to was by Juli Alvarado from http://www.coaching-forlife.com/

*Link to Dr Bryan Post’s Website http://postinstitute.com/hope.php?p=DW1&w=home