Even though it was over 20 years ago, I will never forget the experience. I was the only administrator in a tiny district in northeastern Washington and was having a conversation with two brothers and their parents regarding an incident that had occurred on their bus. One of the boys had gotten mad at this brother and thrown a “pudding pack” at him. Since the pudding pack was open, it had made quite a mess; pudding flew everywhere, i.e., the bus, clothes, other people’s hair, etc.
As I questioned the boys, they each disavowed any knowledge of what had happened. “It wasn’t us,” they maintained. “Somebody else must have thrown it!” When I turned to the father and mother for help, Dad looked me in the eye and said, “My boys don’t lie; if they said they didn’t do it, I have to believe them.” I then turned around and pressed “play” on the VCR in my office.
I still remember the surreal feeling of watching the brown pudding fly from the spiraling container and, at the same time, watching the expressions on the faces of the four individuals in my office as they realized they had been caught in a lie. When the brief video finished, and before I could say anything, Dad looked at his boys and said, “I guess I’m not getting you out of this one, boys.”
Ponder for a moment what that brief statement communicated to those boys. Essentially, Dad was saying to them: “You don’t have to be responsible for your actions; I will lie for you and I will fix it, like I’ve done before.” He was actively teaching them that his job was to help them evade responsibility for their choices. While this was an especially egregious example, it is far from the only example I have witnessed over the years of students and adults denying responsibility for their actions (or inaction).
Of all the things we adults teach, it seems to me that teaching children they are in control of their life and are therefore responsible for that life is foundational. I’ve heard my share of “the dog ate my homework” stories. However, even more concerning is the way our society uses language to evade responsibility. How often do we use the passive voice? “The water spilled,” or “The game broke.” Really? Nobody spilled the water or broke the game? It just happened?
This attitude bleeds over into all areas of life. “This ________ is boring.” That may be true. It may also be true that the complaining individual is choosing not to be engaged and choosing to be bored. Personally, I find opera to be boring. However, given that millions of people love opera, it is likely the fault lies with me, not the music. While missing out on the joy that many people find in opera is likely not to be critical to one’s life, there are numerous instances where refusing to take responsibility for our attitudes and actions is self-defeating.
If we are not careful, it is easy to slip into the victim role. This type of thinking usually takes one of three routes: “It’s not my fault,” “It’s someone else’s fault” or “I didn’t have a choice.” The common thread is a refusal to accept responsibility. This type of thinking may easily lead to this not uncommon scenario: “I didn’t turn in the assignment because it was stupid; when am I ever going to use this stuff? Besides, the teacher doesn’t like me and she isn’t organized; she’ll probably just lose it anyway.”
The result of such thinking frustrates the individuals as well as those associated with them. Not only do they not feel answerable for their behavior and experiences, but they blame others. Since, in their minds, they have no responsibility, they are not culpable for the situation and see no need to remedy it. Eventually, as the behavior cascades, they become more and more disengaged from their lives. The locus of control shifts from themselves to the amorphous “they.” “They are out to get me,” or “They weren’t fair.” They have become bystanders in their own lives.
The reality is 1) when bad things happen, it is often because of a choice we made, 2) often, it is nobody else’s fault and 3) we do have a choice. As the poet William Ernest Henley said so well:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
As adults, it is our responsibility to help our youth also be responsible. We have no more impactful and far-reaching obligation.