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Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. Topics include communication, having difficult conversations, having constructive conversations, chores, routines, family meetings, 

Is Your Middle School Kid Still Blaming Others When Things Go Wrong?

Elisabeth Stitt

IT IS NATURAL FOR YOUNG KIDS TO PUSH BLAME AWAY FROM THEMSELVES

(THEY ARE STILL WORKING ON CAUSE AND EFFECT)

BUT WHEN OLDER KIDS BLAME, IT IS TIME TO TAKE ACTION.

     When kids blame others it is often because they have a fixed and not a growth mindset.  Jean Tracy, MSS, wrote a blog called “Stop Kids From Blaming Others” (http://kidsdiscuss.com/feature_article.asp?fa_id=184#sthash.UOywUZWA.dpuf), and I wanted to offer my own comments on her ideas.  Tracy gave six skills people need to learn in order to shift away from blaming others:

1. Accept responsibility for mistakes
2. Learn from mistakes. 
3. Brainstorm better solutions. 
4. Choose the best solution and act on it. 
5. Become accountable and dependable. 
6. Develop a strong moral character.

Skill #1 is Accept responsibility for mistakes

What makes it hard for a child to do that?  The first reason might be that she fears a harsh or very critical response from her caregiver.  But even kids with sensitive parents can be reluctant to accept responsibility for mistakes.  This is usually a sign of a child having a fixed mindset:  She does not need her parent or caregiver to chastise her; she is busy with an internal crisis about her own sense of how capable she is.  Remember, the primary concern of someone with a fixed mindset is fear that people will discover she is not as capable (as smart or talented) as people currently think she is.  She is, therefore, highly motivated to cover up her mistake so that no one else finds out she is less than they thought before.  Not accepting responsibility for her mistake is critical to hanging on to what self-confidence she still has.

Skills #2-4 are all supported by teaching kids to focus on strategy.

How does a parent deal with a child who cannot accept blame because it will damage her sense of herself?  The first step is to teach your child about a fixed and growth mindset.  Researchers have found that just teaching kids about how the brain works—and especially how it grows when it is learning something new—helps kids to develop a growth mindset.  There are lots of videos for kids of different ages to help explain the brain in action.  The second step to helping her develop a growth mindset is to ask her what strategy she was using when she made the mistake, why she thought it would work, and finally what strategy she might try next.  Focusing on strategy will teach a child how to Learn from her mistakes (Skill #2) and how to Brainstorm better solutions (Skill #3) and Choose the best solution and act on it (Skill #4). 

Confused about how to teach kids to focus on strategy?

Some people get confused about strategy, but it is really nothing more than breaking down HOW you do something.  Here are some strategies typically used in academic settings, but many of them cross over to other areas of life.  The list below might seem overwhelming, but a lot of these are so automatic for you, you don’t even think about them.  They might not be automatic for your kids, however:

            •Brainstorming

            •Outlining

            •Note Taking

            •Mind Mapping

            •Color Coding

            •Making a List So You Don’t Forget

            •Keeping a Calendar

            •Identifying Tasks As Beingof High, Medium or Low Importance

            •Reading Directions from Top to Bottom Before Starting (recipes, doing arts and crafts)

            •Checking for All the Supplies Needed Before Beginning

            •Underlining Key Words (and Checking Their Meaning)

            •Asking Questions to Check for Understanding

            •Repeating Information Back to Check for Understanding and Thoroughness

            •Looking at Examples/Samples of What You Are Trying to Do

            •Editing and Rewriting (Look at your last paper and see what you got wrong.  Did your teacher ask you to focus on transitions? Richer word choice? Providing enough detail?) 

            •Asking Others for Feedback as You Go Along (Have I provided enough detail in this section?  Does my example make sense?  Is it clear who everyone in my story is?) 

            •Double Checking Numbers and Arithmetic (say when doubling a cookie recipe)

            •Allowing Enough Time to Work Slowly and Carefully

            •Allowing Enough Time to Review Work

            •Allowing Enough Time to Print, for the Cake to Cool Before Frosting, for the Paint to Dry Before Transporting

            •Recording Steps So That If They Work It Is Not Trial and Error Next Time

            •Looking at the Pictures and Graphics for Clues (What is the birdhouse supposed to look like when it is done?)

            •Putting the Work/Problem Aside for a While and Coming Back to It Later

            •Reviewing Learning to Apply the Next Time (Did you wash a wool sweater and shrink it?  What have you learned about wool?  About checking labels?)

            •Reviewing Successes to Apply the Next Time (Letting each color of paint dry first keeps you from smearing the next color.  Grouping the same size plates makes it easier to load the dishwasher to full capacity.  ) 

            •Getting the Big Picture Ahead of Time (Look at the whole journey on the map and see it in your head before going to the close up view.)

The Role Metacognition and Critical Thinking Play

In focusing on strategies, what you are really teaching your child is metacognition—thinking about how we think.  As you begin to identify strategies, you can then prime the pump before a child gets started by asking, “What strategy are you going to try here?  If it doesn’t work or you make a mistake, what is another strategy you will try next time?”  Asking the question this way teachers the child to expect that mistakes are a part of getting things right and that a lot of times getting something right is a process of trial and error.  You can model for your children that you don’t always get things right by reflecting out loud on your own process and mistakes.  You might say out loud, “There was too much heat under the pan for the first batch, so they got a little burnt, but I turned the flame down for the second batch.”  Or, “the African violets don’t seem to be thriving on that window sill.  I’m wondering if the problem is too much sun or if I am maybe watering them too much.” 

Children are learning to think critically from a very young age.  Helping them identify what they are doing—especially when they get something right—helps them be more aware of their own efficacy.  For example, you might observe to a toddler, “When you rotated that piece, then you were able to fit it in.”  Now the toddler learns in a more concrete way that rotation is a strategy when fitting things together.  Even just asking the question, “What is another strategy you might try?”—and resisting the need to step in and do for the child—helps a child learn that “trying” doesn’t just mean doing the same thing over and over:  Often it means approaching the problem in a different way. 

What is your child's core belief about herself?

So, notice how much of getting your child to not blame others is really about fostering your child’s own sense of being capable of figuring things out on her own—along with developing the belief that making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process.   You can aide in her learning by giving her opportunities to practice skills as part of her play.  For a toddler and preschooler, activities like pouring all sorts of things (liquids, beans, rice, beads, etc) from one container to a next, screwing all sorts of things on and off, putting things on and off shelves, all help her become competent. 

Skill #5 is to become accountable and dependable

Becoming accountable really means a) admitting when you failed to do something and b) figuring out how to make amends or to ameliorate the situation.  Kids who are reluctant to admit failure are trying to push shame away from themselves because they do not know how to make amends.  Training kids to make amends, allows them to be accountable because it is then within their power to make things better. 

Being dependable is essentially a critical problem solving exercise.  Kids do not want to disappoint others; it does not feel good.  But often they need support in finding the right structures that will assure that they can keep their word.  For example, a child who has agreed to put the garbage out on the curb and then fails to might be being passive aggressive (and that’s a whole other blog), but more likely she does not have a system for remembering that Thursday night is the night to put the cans out.  She might need your support in marking the calendar in red, setting an alarm on her watch, putting it in her homework planner, etc.  Once she has it down as a routine, chances are she will remember. 

Skill #6 is to develop a strong moral character. 

That, obviously, takes years and years of interactions with your kids.  Push comes to shove, though, kids learn by example.  One place to look, then, is how much are you modeling blaming vs. taking the blame?  If your kids hear you blaming others when things go wrong all the time, naturally they are going learn to do that, too.  On the other hand, if you model taking the blame for your part in something—especially when it comes to recognizing how you have contributed to a negative situation with your kids—you will teach your kids to take the blame gracefully.  You need to model honoring your commitments and apologizing when you fail to.  I used to promise my daughter that I would give her as much advance warning as possible about family social events.  Sometimes I would forget and she would get mad—and let me know I had let her down.  Well, that was on me.  It was disrespectful of me not to give her a heads up about family plans when I had agreed to.  I would apologize and resolve to be more considerate in the future. 

What’s the bottom line?

Helping kids develop a growth mindset is central to getting kids to stop blaming others when things go wrong.  When they see themselves as being “in process,” they are able to cut themselves some slack for their mistakes and failures.  That, in turn, allows them to own up to their role in the situation and to look for ways to make the situation better.  Making things better—or using critical thinking to make a plan to assure that things will go better next time—washes away a person’s shame or guilt.  That makes it much easier to take the blame.