A friend of mine explained to me recently about a key interview question he uses with every candidate he meets. He asks them to talk about a mistake they made at their previous company. The purpose of the question is not to uncover those mistakes and learn how badly the candidate messed up but to see how the candidate handled the mistake in the past and more importantly, how they talk about it now. The worst answer would be for the candidate to describe the mistake without discussing how he or she overcame the issue and then to continue talking, explaining how it was not really their mistake at all but actually the fault of his or her boss/co-worker/spouse/dog/etc.
This interview question and ones that test the same qualities will be repeated throughout our children's lives. When they are sitting for their umpteenth college admissions interview it may be this format: "I see that you were on the debate team in junior year but not as a senior. Why did you stop?" The answer we do NOT want our kid's giving is, "The teacher coaching the team changed and he was really bad at coaching so I stopped." Which of course may be true but it was our child who actually quit, not the teacher who forced him to leave. There is an opportunity here for our kids to show their maturity, to take responsibility for their own actions and possibly impress the admissions office at the same time. A better answer might be, "I reacted poorly to the change in coaching staff and left the team. It is something I regret and I have learned from that experience to deal better with change."
Again after graduation our kids will be facing their future employers across the interview table and the questions may change but the required attitude to get the job will not. Employers want young people who will take responsibility and ownership for their work. Accountability is not limited to taking the blame for something done wrong or credit for something done right. A sense of accountability will also drive our kids to put in that extra effort to get their work finished correctly and on time. This attitude will boost our kids to higher achievements both in school and in the workplace.
Children need to learn this sense of accountability from us (parents). There are two aspects of accountability: taking responsibility and taking ownership. Taking responsibility is what happens after the work is done and taking ownership happens before it begins. Let's start with taking responsibility. Kids are great at avoiding blame. From the famous homework eating dog to the age old practice of laying everything on whichever younger sibling happens to be closest. Does this sound familiar?
Dad: How could you get an F on this spelling test? There are only 10 words!
Daughter: But Daaad, you forgot to remind me to study last night.
If Mom or Dad come home from work and complain in front of the kids about how they missed out on the promotion because the boss is a jerk then the kids will emulate that approach. Blame it on someone else. We can all start by setting an example of accountability, at least in front of the kids.
Taking responsibility segues into taking ownership via confidence. No child, or adult for that matter, will want to take ownership of a project (homework assignment, mowing the lawn, babysitting) if they are not confident that they can handle it. Furthermore, if they are self-confident, a mistake will not destroy them and it is easier to take responsibility for whatever happens. With ownership, our sons and daughters will need to learn that they have much greater control over their lives than they may currently think. This does not mean my 10 year old gets to stay up as late as he wants on a Tuesday night. It means that when there is something that needs to be done like homework or chores and an obstacle arises, all it takes is a combination of creativity and effort to get past it and succeed. The more my son succeeds in situations like this the higher his level of confidence will rise. As his father, I can help by encouraging him not to give up. Helping is also OK as long as he feels that he accomplished something at the end. It is a sign of maturity when our kids start taking responsibility for their actions.
So, the next time your daughter comes home with an F and instead of blaming you she admits to forgetting about the test and promises to do better next time, let her know you are proud of her for taking responsibility but that you also expect her to take ownership of getting a better grade next time.