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One of the things we’ve struggled with is how to instil a sense of self responsibility in our kids.  Let’s face it, most people – and especially kids – would rather avoid accepting full responsibility for their actions, especially if it absolves them from any negative consequences.

A colleague of mine recently wrote that using “self” in front of “responsibility” is redundant – because no one can be responsible for you but you.  However, in the parenting world, there is a transition that occurs from being 100% responsible FOR your kids, and gradually transferring that over to them with time.  And when kids are so present-in-the-moment, pleasure-motivated, and wanting-to-please, it’s easy to understand why they tend to pass the buck, blame others, or make up excuses to avoid getting in trouble. (And in my opinion, the avoidance so many people have towards taking responsibility for their own choices and actions is at the core of so many problems in our world – and is one way that I hope our children will be different.)

So…  This week we had a lesson in taking ownership for our own actions.  Early Tuesday morning I opened Ethan’s agenda from school to read a typed note from before the march break stating: “Ethan’s Tall Tale project is way past due.  If it is handed in by March 18th he will get a grade.”

Problem number one:  I was reading this on March 19th.

Problem number two: We had no idea he had any unfinished work to complete.

In I stormed to Ethan’s room, unceremoniously pulling the covers from over his head to grill him about this “sudden news”, thinking that maybe he could get it done in the hour plus before he had to leave for school.  His response: “Huh?!  Wha?!  Urgh?!”  Then, as he woke up:  complete denial, followed by some back-peddling, excuse-giving, tears and exclamations: “Why don’t you believe me?!” and “It’s not my fault! ”

Part of me thought: “Oh really, whose fault could it be, then?”  But underlying it, I was also questioning myself.  Had I failed as a mom to not be on top of this?  How could he have shirked a whole project without me knowing?  I was filled with frustration, as well as riddled with guilt.  Could WE have done differently? And most of all:  What if we fail in teaching our children to take responsibility for themselves and their actions?  All in all, it left me feeling incredibly conflicted, in a turmoil of emotions.

My knee-jerk reflex was to send a quick email to his teacher, explaining that we had just seen the note, could Ethan still get a mark?, and could we please meet to discuss?  In the meantime, Dean got up to join the grilling – with both of us peppering Ethan with questions and comments, explaining the consequences of not getting a grade for his project, its reflection on his report card – but mostly asking him WHY didn’t he let us know?  WHY was the work not completed?  We were simply baffled.

Dean and I had a mini-meeting to figure out how to proceed.  We agreed to the consequences on the home-front of no electronics, computer or ipod for a month.  We also agreed that he had to face the music at school by talking to his teacher, apologizing for the missing assignment, and accepting that his spare time at home would be filled with completing the work, regardless of ever getting a grade.  In the interim, I emailed his teacher back, stating that upon reflection, we felt that Ethan should have to face the consequences for not being responsible for his work and that we supported his  decision on how to proceed with this.

As I said goodbye that morning, Ethan wouldn’t look me in the eye.  Getting down in front of him, I turned his red-rimmed eyes to meet mine, holding his gaze while I watched my words register with him: “Ethan, we are very upset about this.  But I want you to know that I love you VERY much.  And I want you to make this a good day.”  My heart broke a little, feeling the matching turmoil on his end – and even moreso when our good-bye hug felt like I was hugging a board.

I drove to work with an ache in my heart for my boy, wondering how this would all play out.  How on earth do we teach our children to take responsibility for themselves – especially when that may involve losing face, disappointing parents or teachers, or losing privileges?  That’s hard enough for adults to accept.  How do we teach that to our children?  I felt at a loss.

For us, what it comes down to is this:  We realize that we have a relatively short time to instill values in our children – things like honesty, integrity, pride in our efforts, facing our fears, having courage (and the list goes on) – because as the years pass, they will have to learn to stand on their own two feet more and more.  We want them to be confident, internally motivated individuals with a high sense of integrity.  Most of the time I think we see the signs of this transpiring, but this experience left me questioning it all.

The turning point came in a mid-morning email from his teacher stating that Ethan had come to talk to him about the project, and had asked if he could stay in on his recesses to work on it.  (I’m impressed! remarked the teacher)  And I started to hope that this was a sign of Ethan’s growing understanding that only HE could make this right.

By the time I got home Tuesday night, Ethan had completed the writing assignment and was happy to read it aloud to me.  (And it was great – he certainly has the gift of imagination and story-telling, and I have no doubt that he will indeed be a published author one day, just like he says.)

I could tell he thought he had handled the day well, had accepted the consequences, and felt good about his story and the effort he had put into it. The clincher came during our bedtime routine, when he acknowledged that the day had started off pretty badly, but ended well.  As I asked him what he did well that day, his answer was writing his story.  And when I asked him what he was grateful for, he looked me in the eye, and stated with emphasis: “Having awesome parents.”  … a pause, then “Mom, why are you crying?”

“I am just so proud of you, Ethan.” was all I could say.

Here I had spent the morning agonizing over how to teach our children to be responsible for themselves – while not seeing that the experiential learning to be taken away from this unpleasant experience would likely be the best teaching he (we) could possibly have.

And I realized that maybe on our journey of learning together – as children finding their way, and as parents trying to guide them – sometimes we have to simply TRUST that within those unpleasant experiences lies the opportunity to learn about ourselves, face the music, and come out on the other side of it as changed people.  I have no doubt that Ethan learned from this.  And so did I – maybe even more than he did.

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Epilogue:

The following day after school, Ethan exuberantly ran to tell me that his teacher had loved his story, had him read it to his whole class, and then to the principle.  “Mom”, he said, “Everyone loved my story!  And Mr. M. said I would have had an A if it had been handed in on time.  And he even let me tell the class all about the book I am writing and the characters I have invented.  Today was awesome.”  

Although he does not yet know it, he will be getting the grade, and it will be an ‘A.’  As for us, we are in complete agreement with his teacher that this detail will remain between us for a while longer, as he’d like to see this motivation continue.  

We couldn’t agree more.