Dear Polly,

According to Brenda, a 5-year-old girl in my class, nothing is ever her fault. If she stubs her toe, it's my fault for having a chair there. If she's rude to her classmates and they dont play with her, they're mean. Her own misbehaviors are never her fault! Why doesnt Brenda take responsibility for her own behavior?

Why do some children and adults blame everyone except themselves for their woes? Not all people feel OK about themselves, so they can't accept the fact that we all make mistakes, have our less attractive attributes, and have accidents. Many children feel secure enough about themselves to be able to tolerate a small amount of imperfection in their personality, although we always need to accentuate the positive with children to build their self-confidence. None of us like to feel criticized or guilty. However, if we have enough self-confidence, we can admit to a certain amount of imperfection, especially if criticism is given gently and in a loving and supportive context.

What You Can Do
Its important for young children to take responsibility for their actions. Only when you realize that you own? your behavior can you manage it. As Brendas teacher, I'd:

  • Make these points whenever Brenda presents herself as the victim and blames someone else for causing her unacceptable behavior or words:
  • You are in charge of what you do or say. No matter what the other child did or said, you are in charge of what you do about it.
  • You always have a choice. He said youre a stupid poopy head so you scratched him. Are you a stupid poopy head? Of course not! You could choose to tell him hes silly. You didn't have to choose to scratch him. Next time somebody makes you mad, choose to go play something else. Choose NOT to hurt.?
  • Youre a good kid, but you made a mistake. We all make mistakes. Its never OK to hurt somebody or mess up their things. Choose to use your words or to come and get a grownup to help you. No hurting.
  • Convince Brenda that things usually don't just happen to us as we stand by passively. Each of us makes things happen much of the time.
  • Compliment this child whenever she makes a wise choice. When she makes an unfortunate choice, be respectful, but hold her accountable. You might say, Yes, Barbara grabbed your toy dog, but remember? First you took her paper. If you dont want people to annoy you, dont annoy them.?
  • Comment often on Brendas good qualities and actions, whenever she displays them. A child is unlikely to accept her less desirable qualities unless shes sure of her positive ones.

As you work with Brendas parents, ask them if they can monitor interactions between Brenda and her siblings. We often forget how important sibling relationships are in shaping the childs perception of herself. Parents shouldn't allow siblings to insult each other or to instigate incidents that will cause one of them to act inappropriately.
It's important to take this problem seriously. A person who believes that she has no control over her fate is indeed a helpless person. A successful person believes that she can make decisions that affect the quality of her life.