Thoughtful Parenting: The blame game
Janie comes home from school crying because another child was mean to her at school. Her dad asks, “What did you do to make him be mean to you?” Janie hangs her head, turns away from her father and goes to her room, where she cries into her teddy bear.
Dave, in high school, tells his mother he’s fed up with algebra because he just can’t get it and the teacher doesn’t help him. Mom says, “Maybe if you tried harder, you’d do better.” Dave stomps off and plays a game on his computer.
What went wrong here? It’s probably pretty obvious that neither parent was tuned in to his or her child’s emotions and did not offer compassion and understanding; quite the opposite, in fact. Why not?
Mom and the children are driving to the grocery store. Suddenly, Mom has to step on the brakes. Another car has pulled out in front of her. Mom goes into a tirade about how inconsiderate the driver of the other car was.
While watching the news on TV with his grandchildren, Grandpa starts yelling about how stupid certain laws are and how he’d be better off if those laws were abolished.
The common theme in all four of these anecdotes is that someone is blaming someone else for whatever the perceived problem is. Both children and adults tend to have difficulty taking responsibility for their own actions. How can we help our children become more responsible and see events through the eyes of others?
Robert Selman, along with Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, experimented and wrote extensively about how humans develop the ability to perceive a situation from the point of view of another person. How does their work explain the ability to take responsibility?
In order to be empathic and understand another’s viewpoint, children must reach a certain developmental stage, usually 8 to 10 years old. Then, they are likely to have the mental capacity to truly discern what part is their responsibility and what part belongs to someone or something else. If a child trips over another child’s shoe, or an adult stumbles over a curb, is the shoe or curb at fault? Here, the issue is inanimate objects. What about other people?
One of the stories my mother told about her childhood was that if children in her neighborhood got into trouble, they blamed Algernon, a dog belonging to someone on the block. She laughed about it, because she knew how silly it was to blame a dog. Like “the dog ate my homework”.
As parents, we have to be able to take into account where our children are, developmentally, and how we can help them progress in deciding what is their responsibility and what belongs to someone else.
When a child is emotionally stirred up by something that happened, parents can help the child self-soothe and lower his or her level of arousal. Then, and only then, can problem-solving and responsibility sorting occur. Another caveat: Children learn best by example. So Mom driving her car and Grandpa watching TV could have behaved in a more responsible manner.
Chris Young, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice specializing in children and families. For more information, visit her website at mdyphd.com. She can be reached at 970-879-3032.
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