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Teaching Kids Responsibility

Why I Don't Punish My Kids If They Take the Blame

I'll admit that for the most part, my parenting goals are pretty vague. Raising good, kind, happy humans by any means possible (and trying to survive during the messy process) would pretty much be my overall guidepost. But on one issue I'm a lot more specific: I want my kids to take responsibility for their actions, and I'm doing everything I possibly can to ensure it happens, including letting them get away with some seriously bad behavior.

My obsession with being responsible and owning up to one's sh*t came from my own mother, who drilled the lesson into me my entire life, still giving me little reminders about how powerful taking ownership of our own faults and screw-ups can be. People are so used to others making excuses and passing the buck when they make a mistake, she often told me. But just saying, "Yes, I messed up, I apologize, and I want to make it better if I can," is huge because, one, people hear it so rarely, and two, because it's an unarguable position to take.

By simply taking responsibility for doing something bad or wrong, you've turned that negative act into a positive personality trait. You are responsible. "All humans make mistakes," she often said. "The best we can do is admit our wrongdoings, say we're sorry, and try to move forward." Ethics lessons from mama, 101.

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Of course, this thought process doesn't work for overtly malicious acts. No one's saying that if you purposely set a house on fire, then admit to doing it, that you're no longer culpable for that action. But think about it: if that fire was an accident, isn't admitting it a lot better than, say, blaming the dog?

I think so, and that's definitely what I'm telling my children, ages 3-and-a-half and 6, who have learned in their short lives that no matter what they do — spill chocolate milk all over my cream couch (purchased before I had kids), steal the other's favorite toy, kick each other in the shins, even set the house on fire — they won't be punished if they fess up to their misdeeds right away. Lying, on the other hand, will end with way more serious consequences.

My policy isn't totally a get-out-of-jail free card. Of course, they have to apologize to whomever they've aggrieved (usually me) and attempt to make amends for their actions if possible (their cleaning skills suck). But they won't end up in an extended timeout or lose that beloved fidget spinner.

Not only does my "no punishment if you confess" policy teach my children to take responsibility for their actions, but it also teaches them honesty and humility (we all must accept and deal with even the worst parts of ourselves). It teaches them that it's OK to mess up — we all do it; it's part of being human — but it's what we do after our mistakes that really shows who we are. And I want them to be the best versions of themselves they can be, even when they mess up.

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