What does it mean, to hold our child accountable for her behavior? My definition would be that our child assumes responsibility for their actions, including making amends and avoiding a repeat, whether the authority figure is present or not.

So, really, it isn't about "holding our child accountable." What we want is for our children to step into responsibility, to hold THEMSELVES accountable. Once someone takes responsibility, we don't have to "hold them accountable."

As Seth Godin says "Accountability is done to you. It’s done by those who want to create blame. Responsibility is done by you. It’s voluntary. You can take as much of it as you want."

Essentially, we're talking about raising a moral, responsible child who wants to do the right thing. And how can we do that?

Most people assume that punishment is what helps humans decide to do the right thing, so if we aren't punishing our children, they'll grow up doing the wrong thing. That's a bleak view of human nature. And it turns out to be dead wrong.

There's now a wealth of research (see the end of this article for link to citations) demonstrating that kids who are punished are LESS likely to make positive moral choices. That's because:

  • Punishment focuses a child on the "consequences" he is suffering, rather than on the consequences of his behavior to someone else, so it makes him more self-centered and less empathic.
  • Punishment makes a child feel like he's a bad person, which is always a self-fulfilling prophecy, so he's more likely to repeat the bad behavior.
  • The most salient lesson of punishment is to avoid it in the future by sneaking and lying to escape detection, so punishment fosters dishonesty.
  • Because kids invariably consider punishment unfair, it teaches kids that might makes right and abuse of power is okay -- which makes kids less likely to make moral choices.
  • Because punishment doesn't help a child with the emotions that drove her to act out to begin with, those emotions just get stuffed down, only to pop up again later and cause a repeat of the misbehavior.
  • Punishment -- yes, even timeouts and "consequences"-- erode our relationship with our child, so that he isn't as invested in pleasing us. And the more disconnected he feels from us, the worse his behavior.
  • When kids are punished, they aren't taking responsibility to step up and offer a repair. So they don't learn how good Repair feels and they don't get used to doing it.
  • Punishment makes a child feel wronged, and creates a "chip on the shoulder" so she's likely to resent making amends.
  • Punishment makes kids look out only for themselves and blame others, rather than taking responsibility how their behavior affects others.
  • Punishment creates an external locus of control -- the authority figure. The child actually comes to see the parent as responsible for making her behave! So punishment doesn't help kids take responsibility for their behavior as their own choice.

One study showed that seventh graders whose parents raised them using punishment, including consequences and timeouts, were less morally developed than their peers. "Having learned to do exactly what they're told in order to avoid losing their parents' love, they tended to just apply rules in a rigid, one-size-fits-all fashion," said Alfie Kohn, commenting on that study.

Many of the studies referred to above are detailed in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting, and more are being published every day. You'll also find a long list of citations (as well as tips to get kids cooperating without punishment) in my post How To Change Your Child's Behavior -- Without Punishment.

Taken as a whole, this extensive body of research suggests that children who are punished (including with time outs and consequences) exhibit MORE bad behavior, not less. Not because kids who behave badly get punished more often, but because kids who are punished are more likely to behave badly.

So if punishment teaches our child all the wrong lessons, what DOES raise a child who wants to do the right thing? Loving guidance. Which includes appropriate expectations and limits, set with empathy. Connection. Modeling. And a whole lot of love.

We'll get into the details of how you can make that a reality at your home in our next few posts:

"I recently read a quote from a Finnish education minister: "There's no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted." - Teacher Tom