Bob Sullo

The Responsibility Myth: Asking Kids To “Own” Our Choices

Adults rightfully want children to take responsibility for their actions. I'm guessing the following scenarios are familiar to you:

  • Cassandra, a 2nd grade student, is doodling rather than completing her work in class. A competent student, Cassandra frequently squanders time and has been spoken to by her teacher on numerous occasions. Today, her teacher says, "Cassandra, I see you've chosen not to go out for recess with your classmates today."

  • DeShawn frequently disrupts class. Today is no exception. His teacher has had enough and announces, "OK, DeShawn. I guess you've decided you want to spend some time with me after school today. I'll see you for thirty minutes after dismissal."

  • Jocelyn has been told repeatedly to clean her bedroom. Her mother believes it's reasonable to require a 13-year-old to keep her room tidy. After repeated warnings, Jocelyn's mother tells her, "I can see by looking at your room that you've decided not to go to the dance Friday night."

If you were to question the adults in these examples, they would likely tell you they are trying to teach responsibility. There's nothing wrong with that. But, the adults have done more than ask kids to take responsibility for their behavior. In each case, the adults abdicate their responsibility by asking the kids to take ownership for what the adult has chosen to do!

  • Cassandra chose not to complete her work in class. That's her behavior and she owns it. But to suggest that Cassandra has chosen to miss recess is both inaccurate and unfair! Her teacher has made that choice. The imposition of the consequence belongs to the teacher, not the student.

  • DeShawn decided to disrupt class. No one "made" him do it. Some unpleasant consequences may be reasonable, but it's a distortion of enormous proportions to suggest to DeShawn that "you've decided you want to spend some time with me after school today." That's not DeShawn's decision. That's the teacher's decision. Left to his own devices, DeShawn would disrupt as he pleases and might be the first one out the door at the end of the school day.

  • And, Jocelyn certainly didn't decide not to go to the dance Friday night. Her mother imposed that consequence because Jocelyn chose not to keep her room tidy.

Too often we adults intimate to kids that they have choice (and the accompanying responsibility), but we have no choice (and therefore no responsibility). It's not uncommon for adults say things such as, "When Gloria turned in her report late, I had no choice but to deduct ten points from her grade," or "When Tyson spoke out in class for the third time without permission, my only option was to send him to the office." Put simply, that's just not true.

It may be Gloria's choice to turn in her paper late, but the adult—not the child—chooses the ten-point deduction. The "I had no choice" argument is false and disingenuous. It's appropriate to ask kids to take responsibility for their actions. It's equally important for us to do the same. Gloria's teacher had lots of options. She could have discussed the situation with Gloria, ignored the deadline, offered an extension, given Gloria one more chance, deducted twenty points from her grade, called her parents, given her no credit for work turned in late, referred her to the counselor, etc. Some of those possibilities might strike you as foolish. It doesn't matter. What matters is this: just as the child had choices, so did the adult.

When DeShawn disrupts class, the teacher can assign a detention, speak privately with DeShawn, or make a sarcastic comment designed to humiliate DeShawn into compliant behavior. He can ignore the disruption, move DeShawn’s seat, send him out of class, cajole him, call his parents, etc. DeShawn doesn't choose a detention. The teacher does.

Returning to our original scenarios, let's consider an alternative way the adult could have handled each situation:

  • Cassandra, a 2nd grade student, is doodling rather than completing her work in class. A competent student, Cassandra frequently squanders time and has been spoken to by her teacher on numerous occasions. Today, her teacher says, "Cassandra, since you've decided not to complete your work in class this morning, I'm going to have you stay here with me during recess to finish it. Once it's complete, you can join your classmates outside."

  • DeShawn frequently disrupts class. Today is no exception. His teacher has had enough and announces, "OK, DeShawn. I've spoken to you numerous times about your behavior. I'll see you after school today. Hopefully, we can figure out how to solve this problem."

  • Jocelyn has been told repeatedly to clean her bedroom. Her mother believes it's reasonable to require a 13-year-old to keep her room tidy. After repeated warnings, Jocelyn's mother tells her, "Remember what I said, Jocelyn. You didn't clean your room, so you can't go to the dance this Friday. I know you're angry, but I expect you to take care of your room."

See the difference? In these cases, the adult imposes a consequence but "owns" it instead of unfairly shifting responsibility to the child. Rather than asking the child to be responsible for the behavior of both parties, the adult is accepting responsibility for what he or she choose to do.

I chose the consequences in these examples only because they are typical. I'm not suggesting they are appropriate or inappropriate: the actual consequence is not especially important for this discussion. What is important is communicating with kids in a way that helps them take responsibility for their choices while we continue to take responsibility for ours.

Bob Sullo is an ASCD author and educational consultant. Over the course of his career, he has worked with both general-education and special-education students from preK through graduation in elementary, middle, and high school. Visit Sullo's website, read his blog, and follow him on Twitter.

Comments (3)

Niki Hayes

October 5, 2012

Thank you for the excellent article and clear examples. I am so tired of trying to make children assume adult “critical thinking” abilities and of seeing adults abdicate their roles because they don’t want to be the “mean one.”

JD Adam

October 6, 2012

This is brilliant, so glad to read this by a hand that I hope gets carefully listened to!  Thank You.

susan fleming

October 16, 2012

Great article bob. Love the suggestions you have given for adults to model taking responsibility for their actions and reflect on how we use language.

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