“I got a new Tom Gates book from the library today,” Jake enthused as he emptied his school bag one afternoon.
However, when he pulled the book out from his bag, it was damp and warped.
“Uh-oh, the book got wet,” he said.
“How did it get wet?” I asked, although I already had my suspicions.
“My water bottle must’ve leaked.”
“I’ve told you to always check the lid is on tight after drinking. And you have a separate section in your bag for books, to protect them,” I said. Hearing the frustration rising in my voice, I bit my tongue.
“Oops”, he said, maddeningly unphased by the situation. Then, “It’s just water.”
I took the book from him to inspect the extent of the damage. I tried to flick through the pages but they were stuck together in soggy clumps. My heart dropped when I saw that, glued inside the front cover, was a book plate noting that the book had been donated to the school library only a week ago by the outgoing Principal, a long-serving and well-regarded leader.
Jake bit his lip when he realised that the situation was more significant than just a few damp pages.
“What do you think you should do about this?” I asked calmly.
He looked at me blankly, apparently expecting me to tell him what to do. I didn’t.
“Say sorry?” he enquired.
“An apology is a great start. But this was a brand new book gifted by Mrs P for her to be remembered by. It’s pretty special. And think of all the kids who won’t be able to enjoy reading it now that it’s ruined. How can you try to put things right?”.
“We could buy a new one,” he suggested.
“You could buy a new one,” I corrected.
He looked at me slightly alarmed (how many weeks of pocket money would that be?!). But he didn’t resist, he accepted that replacing the book was the right thing to do. Going in to school the next day, he was nervous that his teacher would be cross about the book. I assured him that the teacher would more likely admire him for owning up to what happened and for doing what he could to put things right.
WHAT IT MEANS TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR MISTAKES
Of course, making mistakes isn’t solely the domain of childhood. Adults are just as susceptible to messing up and often do so on a much grander scale! Ranging from absent-minded bloopers to calculated wrong-doing, none of us are immune from mistake-making.
It is humbling for any person to admit their mistakes but the courage to do so grows the more often we are willing to face the discomfort of owning up. If our children practise in childhood, they’ll develop the strength of character and skills needed to become adults who can take responsibility for their inevitable mistakes.
So what does “taking responsibility” really mean? If we deconstruct it, I can see 3 things our children (and many adults) need to learn to do.
1. Admit fault (no more feigned innocence and “it wasn’t me”s)
2. Acknowledge the impact on others (maybe in the form of an apology but we shouldn’t insist on this)
3. Put things right (to whatever extent is possible)
HELPING OUR CHILDREN TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR MISTAKES
One of the best ways to discourage our children from taking responsibility is by giving them an earful about their mistakes. How often do children apologise only to have their adult continue to lecture or, worse, “punish” them for what they’ve done? If they learn that an apology has no effect and that fronting up usually has negative consequences, a child is more likely to hide from their mistakes than to front up to them.
So, instead of trying to “teach them a lesson”, we can normalise mistake-making and support our children in taking responsibility. When we teach our children how to take responsibility, we empower them to release themselves and those impacted by their mistakes from the burden of the wrong-doing so that everyone can move forward. It’s not a matter, though, of telling the child what to do. For taking responsibility to be genuine, more than just going through the motions of what is expected of them, our children need to be allowed to put things right in the way that they see fit.
When the library book got wet, I asked Jake to decide how he wanted to put things right. The onus was on him to put things right but I supported him in doing so. I offered to come in to school with him when he told the teacher about the ruined library book and I suggested that we go halves in the cost of buying a new book as he doesn’t get a lot of pocket money (my thoughts on pocket money here). Just because it was his error, didn’t mean he wasn’t deserving of moral support.
My hope was to show Jake that he has to take responsibility for his mistakes but also that I will always support him in doing so. In future, he will know that he can come to me for help whenever he makes a mistake. At the moment, his mistakes are smaller, like not caring for library books, but there will be more serious ones as he gets older.
IN SUMMARY: FINDING A POSITIVE WAY FORWARD
Getting our children to take responsibility is not about punishing them for their mistakes. Apologising to his teacher and paying for a new book wasn’t about humiliating Jake or depriving him of pocket money. It wasn’t even about teaching him not to put books with his drink bottle in his bag (although I hope he learned that too!).
Taking responsibility is the natural response of a regretful heart to its errors. Our job as parents is to help our children to find a positive way forward rather than to get stuck in the shame and regret of their mistakes.
PS – If you’re wanting a book recommendation for your child, my 8 year-old son loves the Tom Gates series (not an affiliate link)
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