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How to help kids take responsibility and solve problems

Amanda’s parents were frustrated after receiving yet another email from her seventh grade math teacher about a missing homework assignment.  “I had a problem with my calculator” responded Amanda to her mom’s questioning.

Amanda was grounded for six days—three days for not turning in her homework and three days for not taking responsibility for her laziness. The problem wasn’t a deficient calculator or a difficult differential equation, but Amanda’s lack of persistence when confronted by academic difficulties.

Amanda’s parents acted correctly in focusing on their daughter’s pseudo-explanation for her behavior. We all try to make some sense of why things happen, based upon what psychologists call “Attribution Theory.” We observe our own behavior and that of others, and we make inferences as to the cause of some event. How might Amanda view her failure to turn in a homework assignment? There are multiple potential causes—failure to know how to use her calculator, a difficult assignment, an incompetent teacher, or a tendency to give up easily when confronted with difficult tasks.

The attribution that Amanda makes about her behavior has significant implications. Amanda may make a judgment that the cause of her behavior was outside of her control (e.g., “I have a bad teacher. He didn’t explain things well). With that attribution, the parents should prepare themselves for more missing assignments. However, Amanda could infer that her behavior was due to something within her sphere of influence, such as her lack of diligence when confronted with difficult academic situations. Such an attribution will increase the likelihood that she can change her behavior rather than blame others.

Amanda’s parents handled this well in punishing both her behavior and her misattributions. They were trying to help their daughter not only be more responsible in her math assignments, but also affect the way she thinks about problems. We want our kids to avoid either extreme of thinking they can control everything or that they are powerless victims in control of nothing. Here’s what this means for parents.

  1. Listen carefully to your child’s explanation of events. Ask lots of questions. Try to understand their world.
  2. Help them become great problem solvers. This starts with correcting their faulty thinking patterns. Help them understand that in most situations, they do have significant influence over events. Keep asking “What could you have done differently?” Teach them to work through problems, following a very simple process of defining the problem, listing alternatives, considering the advantages and disadvantages of potential solutions, and trying something new rather than repeating errors.
  3. Reward good thinking, not just good behavior. Situations may not always turn out well, but encourage kids when they think about things in the right way. Amanda’s punishment should have been milder if she acknowledged that she was just too lazy to complete her assignment, and admitted that to herself and others.
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