He runs into his room, slams the door, and locks it. Oh, come ON, I think. Stop being such a child!
An ungenerous thought on my part, given that he is, in fact, a child. One of my stepsons, facing one of life’s adversities, and finding it beyond his ability to cope.
After half an hour, he lets me in, but he still isn’t ready to engage: lying face-down on his bed, pillow over his head. I sit and wait. Finally, he starts responding to my questions.
“Are you hurt?” A grunt and a headshake: No. “Can we talk about what happened?” A grunt of indeterminate nature. “Come on, buddy, help me understand.”
Eventually, he emerges from under the pillow. Eventually, through tears: “Lochee punched me in the head.”
“Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry he did that. Punching someone is not okay. Did he just walk up to you and punch you out of the blue?”
“Well… not exactly.”
“Okay, then what happened?”
“We were play wrestling and I pinched him BARELY and then he punched me!”
“Hmm. Is it possible that you pinched him a little harder than you thought?”
“Fine! Forget it! It’s all my fault! I’m the worst kid!” Back under the pillow he goes.
It’s a constant struggle, the search for ownership and accountability without descending into shame and blame. Despite its pretense at ownership, we all know a passive-aggressive “fine, it’s all my fault,” isn’t actual accountability -- but why not?
They certainly seem similar. Oxford Languages defines blame as “responsibility for a fault or wrong;” “responsibility” is also offered as one of the definitions of accountable. But they also have this for accountable: “The fact or condition of being required or expected to justify actions or decisions.”
“Shame and blame” yields “bad person” and “all my fault.” There’s no point in nuance, no point in looking deeper or in trying to understand what happened: I’m the one who failed; I’m the one who let everyone down; I always let everyone down because I’m the worst kid.
Accountability, on the other hand, drives insight. When we are holding ourselves accountable, we want to know all the details: What exactly happened? Where was the breakdown? What is my role in this -- mine to own -- and what is someone else’s to own? What can I learn from this? Accountability requires an unflinching acknowledgement of the facts.
Shame and blame are about who; ownership and accountability are about what. Shame and blame are about finger-pointing (even when the finger is being pointed at self); ownership and accountability are about understanding. Shame and blame are about punishment; ownership and accountability are about acceptance.
Accountability has nothing to do with feeling bad and everything to do with learning. Shame and blame create victims; ownership and accountability create freedom and power.
Knowing whom to blame tells me where to direct my anger; knowing who’s accountable tells me whom to talk to to make things right.
We get there eventually, me and my stepson. He apologizes to his brother for pinching him and his brother apologizes to him for punching him. They seem to mean it. No doubt we’ll find ourselves back in a similar situation soon enough -- these are the lessons of childhood, and they need to be repeated over and over. But I have confidence in their ability to learn.
I only hope we adults are willing to hold ourselves accountable to the same standard.