Parents Perspective

Get Your Kids to Stop Making Excuses

It’s natural for children to blame someone or something for their bad behavior or mistakes, but you can help them take responsibility for their actions.

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My close friend Rabbi Michael Sunshine, leads activities for high school students in Denver where we both live. Not long ago, he told me about an event that had moved him greatly. It moved me as well, and I felt it was worth sharing with parents of kids of all ages. 

Fifteen high school students were finishing up a Friday night dinner at his home. This was around the time the movie Gravity was playing in theaters, so for their post-dinner discussion, Rabbi Sunshine asked his students this question: “Imagine you are an astronaut on the space shuttle and suddenly there’s a terrible mechanical malfunction. Your craft begins drifting out into space, never to return. You have two minutes left for a final message your children. What would you tell them?”

Having had no advance preparation, each teen gave his or her response. The first young man answered, “I would tell my family, ‘You can learn from everyone.’” His profound answer seemed to motivate others to be similarly thoughtful. As they worked around the table, there wasn’t a single silly or sarcastic answer in the group. 

But it was the last boy’s response that stunned everyone there. He said, “I would tell my kids, ‘Don’t let my absence be your excuse.’” Jaws dropped, a prolonged hush filled the room, and the teens nodded and smiled at each other, in awe at the extraordinary wisdom from this young man. He had learned the importance of taking responsibility and not faulting other people or circumstances. That should give all of us hope for our own kids, and for ourselves. 

As a pediatrician, it’s always puzzled me that from the time children are little, they somehow know they should make excuses for bad behavior. It’s as if this is hardwired into human brains: Rather than face the consequences of an angry parent or teacher, blame someone or something else. “He pushed me first.” “She called me a bad name.” “All the kids were doing it.” “The dog ate my homework.” Although most childhood behavior can be traced directly back to parental behavior—after all, kids notice everything we do—it’s hard to believe that kids’ “shift the blame” behavior is entirely learned from their parents. Television, movies, video games and other media are of course the next most influential factors in young childhood. One classic example that comes to mind: InThe Lion King, evil Scar blames the lionesses and the hyenas. (You can actually see hundreds of media examples of blame-shifting on the “Never My Fault” page at TVTropes.org.) 

However, it wasn’t only Scar who blamed others in The Lion King. Simba also blamed the troubles of his youth on the death of his father, Mufasa. Simba used Mufasa’s absence as his excuse—just as that wise teenager in the discussion group warned. Regardless of whether kids learn to find excuses for their bad behavior or the habit is due to natural hardwiring, we can teach them to take responsibility for their own actions. Here are three simple lessons to teach your kids to help stop the “blame game,” along with a parenting tip for each. 

1. Be Honest

Everyone makes mistakes. Parents, teachers, your brothers, sisters, and friends. It’s okay if you make a mistake as long as you’re honest about it. The mistake is almost never as bad as lying about it or blaming someone else.

Parenting Tip: Reward honesty and go light on the punishment for whatever your child did wrong as long as he or she tells you the truth about it when you ask. And when your kids spontaneously accept responsibility for their actions (and avoid blaming), without your prompts or coaxing, praise them effusively.  Then take them for ice cream.

2. Be Brave

It takes courage to admit your mistakes and it’s cowardly to blame someone (or something) else.

Parenting Tip:  Admit your own mistakes to your kids (well, maybe not all of them—but the ones they can learn from). Show them it’s okay to confess even though it can be embarrassing. Try not to blame your spouse or partner for something (even if it’s deserved) in front of your kids.

3. Learn and Do Better

Every mistake you make, and we all make lots of them, teaches important lessons about how to do better the next time and not make the same mistake.

Parenting Tip: Be conscious of your kids’ growth and maturation. When you see them doing the right things and making the right choices in situations where they previously didn’t, point it out them and praise them. And then take them for ice cream.

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is a Parents advisor and the author of books for parents and families, including No Regrets Parenting, 940 Saturdays, and Miracles We Have Seen. He is a Parents advisor, and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at harleyrotbart.com and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.