It was driving me crazy. As a dad, I couldn't stand hearing one more "But she . . ." from my girls. If I would say, "Don't do that to your sister," I could pretty much count on hearing, "But Daddy, she kicked me," or some other excuse. It bothered me partly because I hate blame, but more so because, as a psychologist, I know that failure to accept responsibility can lead to an unproductive life.
Our kids are maturing amid a culture in which people no longer own their choices, words or actions — a culture in which there's always someone to blame for why they do what they do. From sibling aggravations at home to classroom conflict at school, kids increasingly take less responsibility for their actions and find themselves growing into young adults who fail in the workplace because they are unable to take correction.
Are blaming and excuses becoming too common in your home? If you're like me, you want to end them as soon as possible and keep them from taking root.
Teach kids to take ownership
Here are two strategies I used to help my kids avoid blaming others.
First, I came up with a silly game that taught my kids to take ownership of their behavior. I began by explaining that winners admit when they're wrong and make changes, while losers blame others or offer excuses. Then we initiated a family sign that we used whenever we heard someone making an excuse or attempting to blame. In the same way, whenever one of us took responsibility and owned up to something, we used the "W" (made with three fingers) for "winner."
It was amazing how effective and amusing this game became. As soon as family members, including myself, began to blame anything or anyone, hands would immediately go up, and we knew we were caught. I could tell this game really worked when my youngest daughter, Lucy, developed a sly "I just got caught" smile whenever she began to blame or make an excuse.
The second strategy I used to curb blaming was Daddy Court, where I was the judge and jury. I told my girls they were welcome to come to me with disputes, and I would gladly hear their testimony to decide who was right and who was wrong. I explained that if they had a complaint, it better be one with merit. If it proved to be mere blame shifting, the loser would pay the court costs — and they were not cheap. I found that most accusations were accompanied by some provoking behavior on the part of the accuser, so this policy really cut down on frivolous lawsuits in Daddy Court. My girls proved to have an amazing ability to work most things out on their own.
Although these were fun interventions, blaming and excuses are no laughing matter. I've seen these behaviors at the heart of most character problems. Ever since Adam tried to blame Eve, and Eve tried to blame the Serpent, blame has been a part of human nature. In fact, the book of Proverbs teaches that accepting correction is a key component that differentiates between the wise and the foolish (Proverbs 12:1; 15:5).
Children don't just grow out of the natural tendency to blame and shirk personal responsibility. In fact, those character traits tend to worsen when not addressed. Consistent discipline is the best way to refine a child's character. Parents need to clearly explain to their kids that taking responsibility for one's feelings, attitudes and behaviors is not optional. Ownership is expected.
Define choices and consequences
So, how can you encourage your kids to take ownership of their feelings, attitudes and behaviors? Make sure that responsible choices cause good things to happen for your children, whereas blaming or making excuses brings them some kind of pain or loss. If the pain of blame is consistently greater than the weight of responsibility, you will see increased ownership from your children.
The first step is getting rid of parental anger and the tendency to overreact. A lot of blaming and making excuses is inspired by children trying to ward off what feels like an attack or an onslaught of shame from the parent. When you keep your cool while correcting your kids, it helps them keep their focus on their own behavior, rather than on your reaction.
Explain to your kids that they control their quality of life. It's in their hands, not yours. Give younger children the freedom to make choices, clearly stating what the reward or the consequence of their choice will be. Link the consequences to something they really care about (play, privileges, toys, bedtime).
Your explanation can be as simple as, "If you do this or that, then you will not get to play with your games." If your children use their freedom to make wrong choices, do not nag or give excessive warnings. Instead, take an emotionally neutral stance and follow through on the consequences.
Next, explain to your children why they are experiencing consequences. This will make it clear to them that they are responsible for the consequences, not you. Your dialogue should make ownership clear. Consider this example conversation:
"Can you tell me why you are in timeout?"
"I'm in timeout because you told me to stop yelling at Joey but I didn't stop."
"What do you think about the choice you made?"
"It's not a nice thing to do."
"What are you going to do next time?
"I'm going to be nice and not yell."
"OK, that sounds good. And what do you want to say to me?"
"I forgive you."
If your child protests or is insincere, set a timer and tell him you will try to talk to him again when it goes off.This technique further emphasizes that your child is in control of his choices. It gives him time to calm down and consider his behavior.
Train teens to accept responsibility
Teens, too, can be encouraged to take ownership for their decisions. Tell your teen that you want her to have appropriate privileges, including driving, using technology, being with friends and enjoying activities. The more responsibility she shows, the more freedom she earns; the more irresponsibility she shows, the less freedom she will enjoy. Connect the control she has over her choices with her quality of life. Then let her make the choices and either enjoy the rewards or pay the consequences.
Make sure your expectations also address your teen's attitude. Explain, "It is not OK to obey me while you roll your eyes and mutter something disrespectful. That will also result in a negative consequence." Coach your teen toward accepting responsibility by expecting her to clearly vocalize what she did, how it was hurtful and that she is sorry.
The apostle Paul writes that we are to take off the "old self" and "put on the new self" (Ephesians 4:22-24). Parenting involves helping our kids identify their old behavior as unacceptable and teaching them new ways to take responsibility for their choices.
The good news is this: There is hope for raising kids who take responsibility in a culture of blaming and excuses. The Bible promises that even though this kind of discipline can be painful for the moment, in the end it produces "a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11).
Let's not settle for the classic response "It's not my fault" in our homes. Instead, let's teach our kids to own their choices and pave the way for them to thrive. Instead, let's teach our kids to own their choices and pave the way for them to thrive.
Dr. Henry Cloud is a psychologist, a radio co-host and the co-author of It's Not My Fault: The no-excuse plan for overcoming life's obstacles.