Have you ever witnessed a scene like this?
A girl is coloring at the kitchen table while her brother watches television in the family room. When she accidentally breaks a crayon and tears the paper, she shouts to her brother, “Look what you made me do!” Alternately, she might blame the objects, saying, “Stupid crayon!” or “This paper is terrible, it just tears for no reason!”
Obviously, her brother and the inanimate objects did not cause her problem, but this girl has a history of blaming others when something goes wrong for her. Psychologists call this “external locus of control,” but we can call it playing the Blame Game. Plenty of otherwise sweet, charming, bright and adorable children fall into the Blame Game trap now and then. But what about when it becomes extreme? How did they get started on this path of pointing a finger at everyone else, and never taking responsibility for their own actions?
Consider this scenario: A toddler, just learning to walk, falls and bumps his head on a chair. He glares at the chair and hits it with his hand. His parent, amused by his cute expression, laughs and playfully swats the chair, too, saying, “Bad chair! Naughty chair!” The toddler hits the chair some more, telling it “No, no!” He has learned early to blame something or someone else when he gets hurt. Later in life he blames the sun in his eyes for missing the ball, he blames his teachers for his low GPA, he blames his friends for “making” him try drugs, and he blames the police officers for arresting him. (Well, if they had just minded their own business instead of arresting him, he wouldn’t be in jail right now, would he?) Of course, this is an extreme, worst-case scenario. Very few toddlers who spank the chair they bumped their heads on will wind up in jail. We are not bad parents if we laugh and play along when they are being so darned cute. But we can make a difference in their learning to ultimately take responsibility for their own actions rather than playing the Blame Game.
Polly Greenberg wrote a piece for Scholastic describing how she handles young children who blame others at school. Greenberg identifies four possible reasons that children might play the Blame Game, with ideas to address each one. Her ideas can be readily adapted to the home setting.
- BLAMING OTHERS TO SEEK APPROVAL
- A child who yearns for approval may wish to deny any wrongdoing for fear of making his parent angry and falling out of favor. If you have an approval-seeker, be sure to offer plenty of approval, praise and appreciation when he is doing the right thing. When he does something wrong and blames someone else, (for example, he is digging in the back yard sand box with a silver spoon and says his sister gave it to him,) don’t question him about it, just state the facts. Don’t ask, “Did you take my good silver spoon to dig in the dirt?” when you can see for yourself that is what happened. Just say: “The spoon you are using is not a toy and does not belong outside. Please put it in the kitchen sink to be washed and use your sand shovel to dig.” If he says his sister took it, don’t follow that line and argue about it, just repeat the facts: “It belongs inside. Please put it in the sink now.” Then don’t argue. If he tries to engage in back-and-forth debate, simply point toward the house silently and wait for him to comply, or ask him to repeat your instruction to be sure he heard you correctly.
- BLAMING OTHERS DUE TO LIMITED EXPERIENCE IN TAKING RESPONSIBILITY
- Perhaps the child has not yet had much practice in taking responsibility because loving adults are quick to excuse her actions. When a child misbehaves, such as screaming and kicking when told it is time to turn off the TV, sometimes loving adults offer reasons to excuse the misbehavior, (“She’s tired today, that’s why she’s acting like that,” or “We forgot to give her the ADHD medication on time,” or “She loves her TV show so much, it’s understandable that she’d be upset when you ask her to turn it off.”) Even if these excuses are true, and they usually are, it doesn’t take away her responsibility to behave appropriately. We know toddlers will tantrum as part of their learning process, but once she is old enough to control her actions, then it’s time to start holding her accountable. Parents might say, “I can see that you are tired, but it is never okay to scream and kick.” “I know your medication can help you to control your behavior, but you are still the boss of your own body, with or without medication. You may not scream and kick in this room. If you need to, you may go to your room and scream in private for a while and then come back when you are calmer.” “I know you love your TV show, but that doesn’t change the rule: TV off during dinner.” Also, don’t negotiate or bribe your child hoping for better behavior in the future. Don’t say, “If I let you stay up later to watch the rest of your program after dinner, will you please be quiet and eat dinner now?” You don’t want your child to learn that every request from you is negotiable. Plus, there is no guarantee that she will fulfill her part of the bargain later. After all, she just learned from you that all she has to do is scream and kick, and you will knuckle under and make her a counter offer. She is learning all the time, so don’t let that be her lesson of the day.
- BLAMING OTHERS DUE TO LACK OF NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES
- Perhaps your child has never really experienced the negative consequences that usually follow misbehavior. If a child is watching television and orders his mother, “I want a sandwich!” she might lecture him on how disrespectful that was while she is making the sandwich. She might give examples of the polite way to ask for a sandwich, and talk about how she feels when he uses that tone with her, while she walks across the room and hands him the sandwich. Meanwhile, he has been watching his TV show, and none of her words registered. Even if she briefly withholds the sandwich until he imitates, “Mom, may I have a sandwich, please?” before handing it to him, he has learned how getting a sandwich works at his house. He demands, the sandwich appears, he imitates a sentence, and back to his TV show. If he doesn’t get it fast enough, he might blame his mother for being too slow. There was no negative consequence to his disrespect, so he has not learned to change that behavior. When his mother stops responding to imperious orders and disrespectful demands, it will be the first step to changing his behavior. When he shouts at her from the next room and she doesn’t respond, he will need to go to her (not expect her to drop everything and come to him.) If he then shouts at her, “I want a sandwich!” she can refuse to make a move toward the kitchen until he asks politely. Now that he is standing in front of her and focused on her instead of the television, she can say those things she used to say while she was bringing him the sandwich. He is more likely to get the message if she will not even get up to begin making a sandwich until after he comes to her and says, “Mom, may I have a sandwich, please?” Not getting a sandwich in response to trying to boss his mother around is a natural negative consequence of his behavior. Now he’s learning that what he says and does (and how he says or does it) makes a difference in what he gets. He’s learning to take responsibility.
- BLAMING OTHERS DUE TO BEING OVER-CONTROLLED
- Sometimes a child has been so strictly controlled, with no opportunities to make choices about anything, that she rebels by acting out. Once she is caught misbehaving, she feels she must blame it on circumstances or others to avoid punishment. As our children get older, it is time to start letting them have more and more control over things in their environment. You might start with letting her choose between two appropriate outfits to wear to school, and eventually expand to making all of her own wardrobe decisions. You can still make rules or offer parameters. For example, certain outfits may be designated as church or party only, and others as weekend play clothes but not for school. You might let her choose what cereal you buy, following your guidelines for sugar content, or choose what game to play on family game night. The more her chances to expand her independence grow, the less she may need to exert that independence by misbehaving, followed by blaming others for her own actions.
You can read Greenberg’s full article here.
James Lehman wrote a piece that addressed older children who blame others and make excuses when challenged. My biggest take-away from Lehman’s article was something I have advocated myself for a long time: Don’t ask “Why?” When parents ask, “Why did you fail that class?” they are asking for the Blame Game: “My teacher is stupid! The class is too hard for anybody! The grading system is not fair!” Asking, “Why did you hit your sister?” invites,” She’s always bothering me! She won’t leave me alone! She’s asking for it!” So, just don’t ask why. If your child fails a class, a natural consequence would be to increase study time and parental supervision of homework; the increased study time would have to be taken out of free time, such as decreasing television or video game time allotment until the grade improves. If your child hits his sister, you need to have a rule and a consequence in place. Abuse can never be allowed to continue unchecked. If the rule is broken, the consequence, whatever you have decided it is in your family, happens automatically. Privacy is more important to your son entering his teen years, and his sister needs to respect his wishes to be left alone sometimes. If she has been bothering him, as he claimed, that is a separate issue you should take up with her. It is never okay to “bait” a sibling to try to get them in trouble, if that is what’s happening. Be sure you have consequences for the sister’s behavior, too, but her behavior cannot excuse her brother hitting her.
Lehman also talks about thinking errors that kids use in order to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Don’t buy into the “victim stance” (“My teacher hates me,”) or the “uniqueness” message (“I don’t have to study because I’m smarter than the other students.”) Don’t allow your child to turn the tables and try to train you to stop confronting them on their behavior through escalation. Don’t accept or allow dishonesty. If the rule is, no video games until Mom gets home from work, and you believe your child is playing video games and lying about it, simply take the controller to work with you in the trunk of your car. If they cannot yet control the impulse to play video games, don’t give them a chance to fail. Also, don’t let them turn it around on you to avoid dealing with their own behavior. If you say, “Why are you late?” and they ask, “Why don’t you trust me? Why do you hate me so much?” do not fall into the trap of answering their questions. They are trying to pull you away from your original question. Just stick to the issue of their curfew. Remember, don’t ask them why they are late. It doesn’t matter, and you are unlikely to get a straight answer. Just tell them what time it is, what time their curfew was, and impose the consequence for breaking curfew, whatever it is in your family. (Don’t have one set up yet? Do it now, before they break the rule, so there will be no negotiation about what happens when they do come home late.) Just stick to the issue, not the reasons or distractions your child tries to throw into the conversation.
It’s never too late (or too early!) to start helping our children to take responsibility for their own actions. Stick to the issues (what happened) and the natural consequences (what happens now) and don’t ask why. You can nip the Blame Game in the bud!