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Teacher to Parent - Accepting responsibility allows us to keep little problems from becoming big problems

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Q: My son’s teacher picks on him. She recently wrote him up because he supposedly threw something across the room. All he was doing was tossing a pencil to a student who needed one. How can I politely inform the teacher to lay off my child?

If you do that, you may be making a big mistake. Not because it will upset the teacher, but because it will hurt your child. Let’s forget about pencils for a moment and talk about the more important issue: parental denial.

I get that most parents see their children through rose-colored glasses. That’s okay unless it keeps you from teaching your children to accept responsibility for their actions. And when parents refuse to admit that their children have made a mistake, this is exactly what occurs.

It happens a lot. From kids getting reprimanded in the hallway to getting caught with drugs, many parents simply can’t accept that their child was guilty. It must be the fault of the teacher or the principal or the system.

To these parents, I say “Think!” Everyone is capable of making mistakes. This includes your own kids. And denying this reality does not fix the problem. Acceptance does. Once you accept that your child erred and that there are consequences for that mistake, you can get down to the business of doing your No. 1 parental job: Teaching him to be a high-character adult.

But denying his responsibility doesn’t teach him anything except that he’s better than everyone else, that his mistakes are caused by the incompetence (or malevolence) of others, and that the rules were designed for people other than himself.

In other words, such a parent runs the real risk of raising the kind of person that everyone hates: A selfish, self-righteous boor. And these days, those kinds of individuals are already in oversupply.

Now let’s all do some soul-searching here. This isn’t just a problem for those “other” parents. All of us are at risk of falling prey to the epidemic of denial. So it’s important that we all make the effort to stop passing on its ugly symptoms.

We have every reason to do so. Accepting responsibility may have some nasty short-term consequences, I’ll grant you that. But long-term (think lifelong), it has so many more advantages.

For example, it allows us to make better decisions. Once we deem that something is not our fault, it closes us off from doing anything except blaming and self-justifying. We find ourselves searching for ways to prove our innocence rather than improve our character.

Accepting responsibility allows us to keep little problems from becoming big problems. The short story “Princess” by Nicholasa Mohr is about a grocery store owner who refuses to accept that she sold a customer a can of bad beans. To prove herself right, she feeds the beans to her beloved poodle who consequently dies a grueling death. The innocent animal’s demise is the harrowing climax to a harrowing chain of self-justifications.

Something similar may happen to your son. If he is led to believe that his failures are someone else’s fault, he will never find the motivation needed to change his bad habits. He will end up disliked, dependent and deserted.

Accepting responsibility also allows us to engender the respect of others. I once ran into the back of a car. I immediately rationalized several reasons why it wasn’t my fault. There were enough to plausibly claim it, but in my heart I knew I was responsible. When the officer came to assess the wreck, I told him it was totally my error. He looked at me like you might stare at a tofu burger at a cookout. He asked me to repeat it. I told him again that it was my fault. He shook his head and said I was the first person he had ever seen who claimed complete responsibility for an accident. He didn’t even write me a ticket.

Though I often forget, I learned that day that once you open your mouth and say the words “It was my fault,” it gives you a surge of wild freedom. You know there will probably be consequences, but your clean conscience and commitment to the truth liberates you from their power to crush.

It’s hard to see when the fingers are all pointing in your direction how jumping on your own grenade will turn out well, but the facts bare out that it does. This extends to accepting the reality that our children are capable of being culpable and it is our responsibility (should we choose to accept it) to teach them how to learn and grow from making mistakes, owning up to them and coping with their consequences.

In this case, forget about changing the teacher and concentrate instead on teaching your son.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. He is the recipient of the 2018 first place award in column writing from the South Carolina Press Association. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at

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