When my son was three, he had a small snow globe with Pluto the dog in it. Every time he’d play with it, I would say, “Be careful, it is glass so if it falls it will break.” One night, he played with it intensely, not heeding my warning, he dropped it and it shattered. My initial reaction was one of exasperation and panic as I quickly removed him from the area. I fought back the impulse to snap, “I told you so… you didn’t listen” but I know he still felt that negative energy as he felt horrible, 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 as possible 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, Juli Alvarado, 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, there were consequences. They were natural and inherent in that specific situation like sadness and grief for a broken cherished item which we never replaced; instant feelings of guilt for knowing he broke the snow globe; added negative feelings from disappointing his mother; time away from his mother whilst cleaning up. Also, I did not take responsibility for him, I took responsibility for my behaviors. To be honest, I have problems setting limits and being firm as well as lacked the tolerance to deal with my son’s negative reaction if I did take the snow globe away. It was not appropriate for me to expect a three-year-old to truly conceptualize the risk and control himself. Ideally, it is the parent who is the one with more knowledge, more experience, more skills, more resources and is responsible for meeting the needs of a child.
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 ). 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 variables as possible and collaboratively problem solve effectively. I was also role-modeling for my son how to take responsibility.
Teaching Responsibility = Role-Modeling the Ability to identify your role in the negative dynamic & Respond appropriately to get needs met
I believe we all deserve respect and compassion so “appropriately” to me means with respect, compassion, and guidance based on context, skill level, and temperament. There are complaints that there is not enough discipline and kids have no respect anymore. I agree in part as many are behaving how they are treated. I believe discipline means to teach and to control oneself, and that everyone deserves respect, especially children, and our society is extremely disrespectful to children. I think we need more positive, respectful, and responsible role models.
I can’t tell you how many times I hear a parent or adult snap “Don’t you raise your voice to me!” in their elevated and harsh tone, and the countless other times that parents lose control of themselves. Another common parenting contradiction is “Don’t hit her sister/brother!” then threat…”I’ll spank you if…” and then the child witnesses or experiences domestic violence. I once heard Dr. Bruce Perry comment, “If you speak English, you learn English; if you speak rudeness, violence, anger, then you learn rudeness, violence, anger…”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 or power?
I really wish adults would become aware of their power, their feelings, and mood as well as notice all the things they complain about or demand of their child (and partners). Then, I want parents to really reflect on how many times they have committed a similar offense of overreacting with heightened negativity. I continue to do this experiment and I have yet to find a time I have NOT behaved or reacted in a similar, negative 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 hypocritical, unreasonable, and even petty in some cases. A child will learn more positive skills and values from a vulnerable and calm adult who reflects on and changes their own behavior than a defensive and angry person who threatens consequences and dismisses their child’s needs and feelings. 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 and asked if I would help put his sandbox 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 bedtime ritual. Reflecting on this event, I wish my response had no shaming tone to it, though I know realistically how difficult it is to have a neutral tone and there is inherent value to have my son experience processing negative reactions from others, especially with people he loves so deeply. Since this event, I learned the benefits of avoiding saying “Be Careful” and to make more specific, related statements. Click here to learn more about what to say instead of “Be Careful”
Parenting is a journey; a portal to growth, healing, and connection and like our best lessons, can only be learned through a conscious and compassionate process of trial and error. You have no power to change or improve anything if you are not aware of your own role in the dynamics. Fortunately, neuroscience is proving that the brain develops optimally and cultivates positive connections when we are supported by at least one calm, nurturing, and safe caregiver and there are so many fun, respectful, and mutually satisfying ways to achieve this. My son is now a teenager and he amazes me daily with his integrity, empathy, and responsiveness. He consistently role-models responsibility to his younger sister and his peers, he genuinely apologizes and changes his behaviors on his own as well as holds others accountable for their negative reactions. He is the most responsible and compassionate teen I have ever known, and yes, I am biased 🙂
Here are a few of my favorite articles on discipline and natural consequences:
Take wonderful care of yourself and family,
You can learn more about me and my services here at WeCounsel
Positive Reframe shares resources with the intent of the positive progression of informed decision making related to issues associated with emotional, relational, physical and spiritual wellness. While I share personal and professional perspectives, my writings reflect my personal opinion and not intended to substitute professional advice, diagnosis, and treatment. The online medium does not lend itself to the level of detail and rapport building required for thorough assessment and therapeutic intervention thus the content shared on this page is for informational purposes only. To make well-informed decisions that best meet your family’s unique needs, I highly recommend exploring and researching available options, consulting primary health care providers, engaging in respectful dialogue with friends and family as well as seek referrals from a trusted source for professional counseling. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy in the state of Illinois, USA