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SALT LAKE CITY — I was in a hurry to leave one morning. After jumping into the car, I began backing out of the garage as the door slowly lifted. I didn't check behind because we never park any cars on our driveway. Unfortunately, on that rare morning, one of our kids had left his car there. Sure enough, I crashed into the front end of his car.
My reaction: "Why did you leave the car there when we've asked you not to?"
His reaction: "Why didn't you check before backing up?"
We're really good at passing the buck. Kids love to play the blame game. "It's not my fault, mom. He made me do it!"
A child learns early when he hears his parent yell at cars who drive too slow and make him late for work, or vents his frustrations at home about how a co-worker ruined his chances for a promotion, or blames his 9-iron for a missed putt or a referee's bad call that caused the Portland Trailblazers to lose in the NBA finals.
Educator Bonnie Harris explained, "When more spirited children feel blamed, their focus turns inward with self-protection and they defend themselves against the blame to keep from 'getting in trouble.' They act out and learn how to get sneaky and shirk responsibility ... Children with a more adaptable temperament take blame personally, plummet into guilt, learn that 'everything' is their fault, and lose self-esteem."
When more spirited children feel blamed, their focus turns inward with self-protection and they defend themselves against the blame to keep from 'getting in trouble.' They act out and learn how to get sneaky and shirk responsibility.
–Bonnie Harris, parenting educator
Dr. Neil Farber asserts that parents "must assume much of the responsibility for creating these harmful beliefs and attitudes in our children when we blame them for things that are beyond their control or within a normal range of childhood behavior." Why point the finger at others? There are plenty of reasons: to deflect our own guilt or inadequacies, for misunderstandings, power and control, or unrealistic expectations. Some parents rush to blame teachers or any number of "unfair" circumstances to protect their child from discomfort.
Such was the case with one high school teacher who gave a failing grade to three students who cheated on a test. One parent responded, "Well, if your class weren't so hard, my child wouldn't have resorted to cheating!" Teenagers who are taught this "victim" attitude may not realize their full potential.
Overprotecting a child creates a "me against the cold, cruel world" mentality. James Lehman warns against this harmful parenting practice: "If you see your child as a victim, he will eventually see himself that way, too ... 'Since I’m a victim, the rules don’t apply to me.' Herein lies the real danger. There are rules that accompany learning. There are rules that accompany individual change. Children who don’t follow those rules often don’t learn and don’t change."
Parenting is about empowering our children, not victimizing them. Being grown up requires we grow up. The following are three approaches to end the blame game.
1. Avoid words that connect your emotional state to another's actions.
"You make me so ..." Whether the ending of that sentence is positive (proud/happy) or negative (mad/angry), we communicate that emotions are not ours to control, but result from the actions of others. The latter is typical merchandise in the blame-shifting department. We pay a high price to discredit our ability to choose.
Try using these "I" sentence starters instead: "I am so happy when..." or "I feel angry when..."
In essence we are stating, "I choose to be (insert emotion) when you (insert behavior)." Emotional maturity requires honest humility.
2. Be situation-oriented rather than blaming-oriented.
When a problem arises, ask, "What happened here?" (gathering information) rather than, "Who did this?" (accusing). An understanding opener will help a child feel safer in sharing the truth. The parent and child acknowledge the wrongful deed rather than cut down the doer. They move forward. What easily follows is, "What should we/you do about it?" (fixing oriented).
3. Focus on taking full responsibility.
If we come out shooting with both barrels, what child wouldn't want to duck for cover? Rather than "Why did you fail your exam?" calmly ask, "Whose responsibility was it to learn the material for the test?" Shift the conversation from fault-finding to responsibility-taking.
My neighbor teaches high school chemistry and was entering the final grades for the semester. She was surprised to see an exceptional student, who had always turned in every assignment, have one missing lab. That one "F" brought her final grade from an "A" to a "B+". The teacher was sure this student had done the work so she replaced the "F" for that assignment with an "A." The next day, this student came in and said, "There's something wrong with my grade." The teacher said, "I know. I changed it to an "A." The student said, "No. That's not it. My house burned down that week and I didn't do the assignment. I want you to leave the "F" because it is what I earned."
Julie K. Nelson is the author of "Parenting With Spiritual Power," a speaker and professor at Utah Valley University. Visit her website www.aspoonfulofparenting.com, where she writes articles on the joys, challenges and power of parenting.