“Personal Responsibility” buzzes around a lot these days, in and out of political ads, talk shows and campaign platforms. Fine.
I realized a long time ago that parents have a personal responsibility to teach and demand personal responsibility, I just never knew how hard it is! From the cradle, our instinct is to pass the buck, avoid punishment.
It starts very early and innocently enough, with routine announcements like “Mom, the milk spilled.” Translation: “Mom, I spilled the milk but I want you to clean it up.” Children would have you believe the spill occurred spontaneously. If you’ll buy into it, they will too. After all, you weren’t there, all you have is circumstantial evidence. All you REALLY know is “it spilled.” So why make a big stink?
Now you may be thinking that saying “the milk spilled” versus “I spilled the milk” is merely a question of semantics. With children, however, semantics is EVERYTHING. Children’s word choices are not about shades and nuances in meaning, though, it is about one thing and one thing only: “It’s not my fault.” It is an exhausting task, but if I don’t explain these important differences to them, they could grow up to be adults who duck behind semantics saying awful things like “Mistakes were made” or, God forbid, “It depends what ‘is’ is…”
When I ask for detail about spilled milk, for example, they will elaborate with “it tipped over.” I remind them that if they were the only person who witnessed this spontaneous phenomenon they have to clean it up anyway, so they might as well ‘fess up because I am not as dumb as I look. They rarely budge so I must look REALLY DUMB.
Not long ago enough, I found myself heading to Atlanta with four children in a not big enough van. They are all would-be scientists, developing a new adhesive made of sweat, used Band-Aids, crumbs, and masticated gummy bears. Since it at least kept them firmly in their seats, I tolerated it, even when shoes and socks entered the mix.
Then the first grader child asked me to fix her sock which had “got a knot in it.”
This knot defied all human strength. HOW the sock was knotted defied logic.
“HOW did this happen?” I screeched.
“I don’t know,” she marveled, “it just did!”
“Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but it looks like SOMEONE tied this sock in a knot, pulled it tight, and then sucked on it with gummy bears in her mouth for the last two hours so that it would stay knotted FOREVER. What do YOU think really happened?” I asked.
She had her story and she was sticking to it, bless her little heart: “I don’t know, Mom, it JUST DID.”
“Honey, did YOU tie this sock in a knot? Is that how we treat socks? Are socks FOOD?”
“I don’t know, Mom. It just got a knot in it.” Real progress.
I then lost it, delivering a fire and brimstone version of my normal sermon about the importance of word choice, of owning up, of not driving your mother nuts on the hope that she MIGHT buy “it got wet” this . . . one . . . time. “Repeat after me,” I raged, “Mother would you please untie this sock that I have knotted and chewed on?”
She recited the words and then even ad-libbed that she was sorry. SUCCESS!!!
I lavished her with praise for taking responsibility and pointed out to her and the three other gawkers how HAPPY Mommy is when they own up.
When we arrived at my sister’s house, their aunt prepared to pressure wash the car’s interior for me. She asked, “What happened to your sock, honey?”
“Oh, it got a knot in it.”
I handled the child’s relapse pretty well, actually. My bald patches only took a few weeks to grow in.
This post was originally published in The Greenville Journal on July 30, 1999, as part of Joan’s Life In The Slow Lane series. Copyright 1999 Joan Herlong