We’re living in a time and place in which it often seems the people in charge have no sense of accountability ― whether it’s governors rejecting mask mandates and other public health measures aimed at keeping people safe, or leaders failing to own up to their role in big and small failures.
On an everyday level, many adults don’t understand the consequences of their actions and refuse to acknowledge when they’ve made mistakes. And as always, our children are watching. So perhaps now, more than ever, is the time for parents to focus on teaching kids about accountability.
“Accountability is a way to take responsibility for actions you’re in charge of,” Priya Tahim, a licensed professional counsellor and founder of Kaur Counseling, told HuffPost. “By teaching kids personal accountability, you’re teaching them that mistakes happen and when those mistakes happen, it’s important to learn to fix or grow from them.”
“It helps instill moral values of right and wrong, even when there is no one watching,” she added. “It also allows kids to see that it’s OK to make mistakes, and there are ways to move forward from those mistakes.”
So how can parents create a culture of accountability in their homes? Below, Tahim and other experts share their advice.
“Parents are unsure sometimes about when to actually start asking their kids to be accountable,” Sheryl Ziegler, a psychologist and the author of “Mommy Burnout,” told HuffPost. “I feel like it starts when they’re toddlers, and it’s as simple as, ‘We can play with the puzzle but when we’re all done, we need to clean it up.’”
She noted that kids may wander off to play with something else or get a snack when the puzzle is finished, and too often parents resort to just cleaning it up themselves because it’s faster and easier that way. But it’s better to provide opportunities for kids to take ownership of their own little responsibilities.
“If you start early, you start setting the foundation that it’s important to be accountable: ‘Sure we can play with that now, as long as we clean this up,’” Ziegler said. “You can make it fun and have cute cleanup songs like they do in preschool, but bring it into the home to reinforce that this is how the world works.”
Give more responsibilities.
As kids get older, you can give them more things to be responsible for. The key is to make sure the tasks are developmentally appropriate, such as asking toddlers to pick up their toys and books at the end of the day.
“For kids that might be a little bit older, it could look like packing your own lunch, packing your own backpack, making your bed, or putting all of your dirty clothes in the hamper,” clinical psychologist and author Jenny Yip said. “Kids begin to understand that they do have responsibilities, and the choices they make ultimately have consequences. It also teaches them free will and how to be responsible citizens of society ― it’s ‘I do have a part in what happens in the world.’”
Responsibilities lead to opportunities for accountability. Cindy Graham, a psychologist and founder of Brighter Hope Wellness Center, advised allowing children to be Mommy or Daddy’s “helper” ― getting a diaper for their baby sibling, helping out in the kitchen or even picking up groceries when they reach their teen years.
“Kids are likely to continue on with actions they feel motivated to do and find highly rewarding,” Graham said. “Therefore, parents should also ask their kids for ways they would like to show how responsible they can be.”
Teach them about consequences.
“Accountability means taking ownership of the decisions and the choices you make, and accepting whatever consequences those choices come with,” Yip said. “It’s important for every young child to learn so that they understand cause and effect and how the choices they make have consequences, positive or negative.”
There are many everyday opportunities for kids to make decisions or take actions and then experience the natural consequences of those choices, said Amanda Gummer, a child psychologist and founder of The Good Play Guide.
“For example, I suggest don’t fight them if they don’t want to take a coat, but then when they moan about being cold or wet, simply explain that that is why you suggested taking a coat in the first instance, but that it was their decision not to bother. So they now need to put up with the discomfort that results,” Gummer told HuffPost.
“Perhaps they might not want to eat their lunch,” she added as another example. “There’s no need to start an argument or fight about it, but just make it clear there’s nothing else to eat until dinnertime and so if they are hungry, they will have to deal with it.”
Children should also understand that even when they experience negative consequences resulting from their choices, there’s always an opportunity to make things better or try again next time.
Offer positive reinforcement.
“Don’t forget praise at all age levels,” said Lea Lis, a psychiatrist who works with both children and adults. “Parents tend to notice when kids mess up, but when they are doing really well, they ignore it. Praise your child that is doing well with their accountability at all times, and catch them being good!”
Kids should learn that taking responsibility isn’t just about negative consequences, but about positive rewards as well. In addition to verbal praise, positive reinforcement can also come in the form of allowance for doing chores, gold stars for good behavior or a reward chart to earn prizes.
The important thing is to just acknowledge their accountability in some way, even with the little things.
“If they cleaned their room or made their bed on their own, you want to reinforce that,” Ziegler said. “You can say something like, ‘Good job this morning! I really appreciate how you made your bed, and I didn’t even have to tell you. That makes the morning so nice. Now we can get out of the house and go to the pool sooner.’”
“I believe the primary way parents can teach their kids accountability every day is to model these behaviours,” Graham said.
She recommended that parents set an example by actively and openly practicing taking accountability for their actions. This can involve things like apologizing when they make mistakes, acknowledging when their behaviors or emotions are more extreme than a situation warrants, or identifying ways to make amends when they hurt others.
“Children are likely to repeat what they see others doing, so it is important for caregivers to be aware of the lessons kids are learning from them,” Graham said.
Parents can also use examples from their kids’ favorite shows and movies to talk about how the characters take accountability for their actions.
“I would say consistency is the most important thing a parent can do while teaching their kids to be accountable ― consistency in how they handle times their child doesn’t take responsibility, or creating and following family rules,” Tahim said.
She recommended teaching children to follow a routine, such as waking up, brushing teeth, making the bed, showering, etc. Although parents are often exhausted, it’s valuable to make sure kids are adhering to these steps on a regular basis.
“As adults, we know that not brushing your teeth or not showering can not only have physical consequences, but social,” Tahim said. “So if you teach your child to follow a routine and they don’t follow through, it’s up to the parents to correct that action. In many cases, parents will often set rules but not follow through on the consequences once they set them. This behaviour promotes irresponsibility by teaching kids that their behaviour is acceptable and they don’t have to accept responsibility.”
Discuss the feelings involved.
Teaching a kid accountability can also help them learn how to process their feelings in an appropriate way, Tahim said.
Of course, everyone gets anxious, upset, angry and so forth. Being accountable involves learning to take charge of your emotions and process them in healthy ways, such as taking deep breaths, journaling or talking about how you feel.
“For example, discourage throwing things, hitting, biting, yelling as a form of anger release. Instead, try to have them release in a healthy way and be accountable for how they feel,” Tahim said. “Encourage them to explore what triggers their feelings and ways they can accept responsibility for those triggers.”
“The more open-minded a parent can be in teaching their kids accountability, the better,” Graham said. “Remember, kids will make mistakes. Parents should take care to self-regulate and not have large emotional displays when their kids struggle with accountability. This can lead their child to be less likely to want to talk about times where accountability is difficult for them.”
It’s also important for kids to understand the difference between the things they can and can’t control.
“Good mental health comes from correctly taking responsibility for things within their control ― for example, how hard they study for an exam ― while not taking responsibility for things they can’t control, like the disruption to schooling because of COVID, the lockdowns and home schooling,” Gummer said.
Parents can help their kids recognise the difference and ensure they don’t take responsibility for things they shouldn’t. Psychotherapist Noel McDermott emphasised that children often have an egocentric mindset in that they think bad things happening around them are their fault.
“A child might feel responsible for their parents’ feelings, so it’s important to model healthy boundaries around this,” he told HuffPost. “Mostly this will be achieved by, as parents, making it clear that your child cannot lose your love, and also by modelling and explaining when Mummy or Daddy is upset, it’s never because of them.”
Promote their independence.
“You want to build up an accountability system that eventually doesn’t rely on you,” Lis said. “For example, you might want to help them with their organisation skills or homework when they are in elementary school, but eventually, you want them to figure out how to check their assignments and organise their desks and rooms without your help.”
While you may reward your children for doing their homework when they’re young, consider longer stretches of time between such reinforcements as they get older (i.e. only rewarding bigger milestones like good report cards for teenagers).
Promoting their independence and sense of accountability also empowers kids to take ownership of their successes and failures.
“This reduces children blaming other people for things that go wrong and also helps kids feel good about themselves when things do go well, which also builds confidence,” Yip said. “Essentially, being accountable builds resiliency.”