Holding the Child Accountable: The You-and-Me Dialogue

Holding the Child Accountable:
The You-and-Me Dialogue

I refer to the “Accountability Dialogue” also as the “You-and-Me Dialogue” because this is where I (parent) talk to you (child) about how we are treating each other — especially after you break an agreement you have made with me.

Unacceptable child behaviors (UCBs), such as temper tantrums, arguments, angry and disrespectful insults, lying, stealing, physical or verbal attacks on others, etc., can be distressing events for parents. How to handle them can often be a confusing disciplinary challenge.
In my New School approach to “how to be a parent,” I advocate reaching an agreement with the child (even as young as two years old) about how they will handle any particular UCB in the future. The best the parent can expect to get at that point is

an agreement from the child that she will do something different next time. It is understood that the child will sometimes break her agreement. This approach rejects punishments for the misbehavior because punishments are meaningless, ineffective, and counterproductive–they make the parent the enemy instead of the ally, and they invite the child’s anger and “payback.”

After a Broken Agreement

Strange as it may seem, when children have made an agreement to do better next time, and  then go and break their agreement, this  presents parents with a “golden opportunity” to strengthen the parent-child relationship as well as to influence the child to change her behavior. This great opportunity can occur at any time after the agreement has been broken (even days later). The “You-and-Me dialogue,” the “Accountability Dialogue,” is a purposeful conversation with the child NOT about the distressing event (the original UCB), but about the fact that she broke her agreement with you.

From the parent’s point of view, the overall purpose of the “You-and-Me” dialogue is to hold the child accountable for her breaking a previous agreement that is very important to you. To hold someone accountable means to seek an accounting from them about why and how something happened, and here you want to find out why and how she broker her agreement with you.

The Accountability Dialogue is almost always initiated by the parent when both parties are in a good mood. In this dialogue the parent wishes to learn more about the breaking of the agreement than about the original unacceptable behavior from the child’s viewpoint–what led up to it, what motivated it, how the child felt about it at the time, what the child thinks and feels  about it now in hindsight, and what the child thinks might be done to prevent breaking another agreement in the future.

The Parent’s Objective

Thus, your main objective should be to listen and learn from the child about her own perspective on breaking her agreement, and her ideas about the implications of that event in terms of how you treat each other. Ninety percent of your communication should, ideally, be listening to the child’s thoughts and feelings. This requires your being able to use basic listening skills. (In my approach, these are: acknowledging, questions. and reflecting). There is always time at the end of the dialogue for you to offer an opinion to the child about the matter, and there will certainly be more opportunities to deal with these same issues as the days go by because she will undoubtedly break agreements in the future. So your desire to teach, correct, or “set the child straight” should not be rushed. The Accountability Dialogue, repeated whenever necessary, will itself be the vehicle for “setting the child straight” and influencing an important change in UCB.

Shift in Focus to the Golden Rule

The Accountability Dialogue comes down to a discussion of how you and your child are treating each other, and why–-in other words, how the child truly feels about you, how you feel about her, why you treat each other the way you do, and how you each would like to be treated. This is the concept of the Golden Rule. It is the basis for law and order and the entire system of justice in Western culture. It is so simple and elegant that even a two-year-old understands it.
Let’s say you and your four-year-old son, Johnny, had previously negotiated an agreement that he would not hit his little sister the next time he gets angry at her. You and he had both agreed that hitting is not the best way to handle angry feelings because hitting hurts and we don’t want to hurt people, even if they did something wrong to us first. You do not hit Johnny for the same reason. Let’s say you had agreed with Johnny that when he gets mad at his sister he would tell her, “I’m mad at you, and I’m going to tell Mom (or Dad).” Then the next day he gets mad at his sister again and hits her.

The Parent Initiates It–Unless the Child Does.

You can initiate this little conversation at any time. A good time might be the next day, when the two of you are alone, calm, and in a good mood–perhaps while driving in the car, because the child is a “captive audience.” Another very good time is when the child initiates something different, like a request or demand for some kind of favor from you. You can say, “Oh I’m glad you mentioned that! It reminds me that I had something I wanted to bring up with you, too. Remember earlier (or yesterday, or last week, or whenever) you were so angry at your sister and you hit her? (Or when you did XYZ?). We had an agreement about that, didn’t we?”

Then stop. And see how he responds.

This is a key question: “What about our agreement?” Instead of getting a response regarding his latest request (or demand) of you, Johnny has now gotten a reminder about a previous agreement he had made with you and then broke. You have not yet given him a response to his request (demand); instead, you have put your issue on the table for discussion, right next to his. And you’re now waiting for him to face up to the fact that he broke his agreement with you when he hit his sister. If he strongly wants what he requested (demanded), he might readily engage in the dialogue. If not, he might not. Then you can choose whether to pursue the agreement issue there and then, or wait till a more opportune time.

More Key Questions

What it comes down to is this: How do we each think about agreements? One of your key questions for Johnny is, “How would you feel if I break an agreement with you?” You might give an example. “Let’s say I said you could have ice cream for dessert, and then at supper I changed my mind. How would you like that” Or, “Let’s say I said you could go to the party Friday night, and then Friday afternoon I changed my mind. How would you feel?” You will most likely get a very reasonable response, like, “I wouldn’t like it,” or “I would be mad.”

Then you ask another key question: “Okay, so how do you think I feel when you break your agreement with me?” Most children (even two-year-olds) have a keen sense of fair play, and can readily understand what you’re getting at: namely, that what would upset them would upset you, too. Johnny might respond with, “You would be mad,” or “You wouldn’t like it.”

The next key question would be, “So how do you think I should handle this now?” You are referring to the fact that Johnny broke his agreement with you, and you feel upset about it (which he understands). And you are now asking him what he thinks you should do about it. He might propose a punishment; you may or may not want to go along with it. You may want to propose something different. You may not want to propose any punishment at all. Remember, the key here is not punishment but teaching and learning about breaking agreements. You are helping him learn that how he handles his agreements affects others–and particularly you–in a serious way.

You have to feel your way through this dialogue and arrive at an agreement with your child about what should be done here and now regarding this particular broken agreement.
The last key question in this conversation is, “How should I handle it if you break your agreement with me about hitting your sister (or other UCB) again?” This should result in you and Johnny reaching another agreement about what will be done. You will be the one who is responsible for remembering and responding to this agreement if and when Johnny breaks his agreement about the original UCB (hitting his sister, or whatever).

Repeated “You-and-Me” Dialogues

After several of these Accountability Dialogues, Johnny will be learning that he better take his agreements with you seriously. This whole idea will make sense to him. He will be learning that you take the whole matter quite seriously because you consistently take the time to have these no-nonsense talks with him. He will be learning that giving an accounting for UCBs or broken agreements is quite uncomfortable. After all, who really enjoys being “called on the carpet” to explain themself for breaking their word?

Thus, the Accountability Dialogue about any particular incident or agreement might occur once, or repeatedly over a period of time. There might be several conversations about the same topic–with no resolution–at first. It might also occur many times about a variety of different incidents where the child broke agreements with you. One advantage of consistently taking the time for these talks (instead of just laying down rules and punishments) is that the more often you invite this kind of genuine exchange and self-disclosure, the more the child learns that you take his thoughts, feelings, and agreements quite seriously. And, also, both you and your child will learn how to engage “heart-to-heart” talks and to be real with each other over time.

Not only that, but practicing the listening and illustrating techniques like this will help you and your child develop relationship skills that not only can heal and nourish your own relationship with each other, but that also can be applied and used in other important relationships you have as well.

If you can do it in one relationship, you can do it with anybody, whenever you want to.)

Discipline at Its Best

This kind of dialogue is far superior to punishments because it embodies the real, and most basic, meaning of the word “discipline.” Disciplina in Latin means both teaching and learning. By using it consistently, the parent teaches the child many of life’s important lessons without lecturing or  scolding. It is an excellent  form of “time in” (as opposed to meaningless “time out” for the child) that has many values for both the parent and the child.

For example:

1. It can be used with children of all ages (over two), including toddlers. Even young children have an innate sense of fair play and can readily comprehend the principle of the Golden Rule.

2. It focuses directly and immediately on the parent-child relationship, and the question, “How are we going to treat each other?” It is not primarily concerned with the content of the original UCB, but rather with the quality of the parent-child interaction (agreements).

3. While not primarily concerned with the original UCB, this conversation is always directly connected to it, and so it is not something pulled in “from left field” by the parent.

4.Being held accountable is sufficiently uncomfortable for the child that it provides an appropriate emotional charge in a “teachable moment” the child is likely to remember.

5. It teaches the child that the parent values the child’s ideas.

6. It teaches the child that the parent takes very seriously, and very personally, the way the child interacts with the parent. And vice-versa. In fact, it makes this process of how parent and child interact an important focus of discussion, an immanently “discussable” topic.

7. It teaches the child to explore and identify alternative positive behaviors that the parent approves of and values. The parent is helping the child to learn effective brainstorming and problem-solving methods.

8. It teaches the child the meaning and implications of the Golden Rule.

9. It can be easily replicated in all kinds of similar situations where the child is offensive.

10. It can be referred back to by the parent in later conversations about unacceptable child behaviors and broken agreements.

Conclusion

By substituting the Accountability Dialogue (“You-and-Me” dialogue) for rules punishments, the parent radically changes his/her role from the administrator or inflicter of pain to that of teacher, guide, coach, or consultant who teaches important life lessons about relationships. In this new role the parent respectfully collaborates (works with) the child in a supportive way while the child learns to honestly face their failures and acknowledge the important impact their behavior has on others.

Finally, going far beyond mere rules and  punishments, with this dialogue, the parent helps the child learn how to arrive at new solutions to relationship problems, and how to make amends for unacceptable (antisocial) behavior.

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3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my ebook  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model (power, control, and punishments) and the New School Parenting model (dialogue, agreements, and accountability). The ideas contained here represent a change from parenting harder to parenting smarter. They can transform a stressed parent-child relationship from conflict and arguments to one of cooperation and harmony. Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

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