The other day, while my son and daughter were playing, I watched my 6-year-old boy slam his sister's head against the wall. I could tell it wasn't malicious and that he wasn't trying to hurt her, but it was absolutely intentional. The fact that he wasn't aiming to do harm didn't change the fact that he did, and he quickly understood the consequence of his actions (aided, no doubt, by my fiery stare). "It was an accident!" he cried, but I'm raising a son to take responsibility for his actions, and that wasn't going to fly.
"It wasn't an accident," I said sternly. "You just didn't think it through."
"But I didn't mean to hurt her! It was an accident!" he protested.
I could tell he felt bad, and his claiming no responsibility was as much trying to get out of trouble and as it was trying to assuage his guilt. While I was glad that he felt remorse, that wasn't enough. I pushed him on it.
"You didn't mean to hurt her," I said gently. "But you did. Your actions hurt her and you need to say sorry and see what she needs from you to feel better."
I'd like to say all of this was a straight-forward, well-learned lesson in personal responsibility that ended tidily. It didn't, because this is real life and children are hard, especially when they're feeling simultaneously wronged and guilty. My son was miffed for the next 15 minutes but, ultimately, I believed he learned what I was trying to teach him: just because you didn't want to cause harm doesn't mean that isn't exactly what you did. I think that's an important thing for all people to internalize, but perhaps especially our sons.
Yeah, yeah, #NotAllMen, but we live in a world where, too often, men are never asked to fully reckon with the ways in which their actions cause harm, and women are asked to be held accountable for the behaviors of men associated with them. I cannot have my sweet son be a part of that system. As such, my partner and I are raising him to understand that he is responsible for himself, so here are things we never do:
Believe "Boys Will Be Boys"
Nooooope. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. We're not holding our sons to a different standard simply because they're male. Not only is that not allowing boys to be held responsible for their actions, but that attitude sells them short in their moral development and their own sense of what they're capable of. After all, if they grow up being told "You can't help this because LOL! #Boys!" what else will they grow up thinking they can't achieve due to some sort of constitutional incapability?
Apologize For Him
That's not to say you're not going to go on a standard "mom apology tour" after a particularly rough day on the playground. I feel like we've all done that, whether we're raising boys, girls, or any child in-between. But anyone hoping to raise a child who takes responsibility is putting a premium on them making their own apologies as soon as they are old enough to grasp the concept. It's not enough for mom to say, "Sorry, he's cranky." He needs to step up and say "sorry" himself.
Blame People For Their Own Victimization
There will be no, "Well what was she wearing?" or, "What was he doing in that neighborhood after dark?" or, "Why did he have to wear a hoodie?" This concept extends to slut-shaming, too. (Because when you teach your son, even unintentionally, that there are some women less worthy of respect than others, that message is powerful and damaging.)
Tell People (Or Accept) That "He Didn't Mean It" When He Did
As with the example I mentioned before where my son whacked his little sister's head against a wall, just because someone doesn't mean to do harm doesn't mean he didn't mean to do exactly what he did. It's important not to shirk responsibility for things like that by pretending they happened differently than they did.
Seriously, there's enough of them in the world. Explanations are nice, they help put things in context, but you don't get to explain away a consequence.
Do His Work For Him
I once saw a mother rally her daughter and nieces to do an entire school project for her son because, and I quote, "he's just not good at this sort of thing."
Oh let me count all the horrible lessons this is teaching: her son's doesn't have to be responsible for his own education; you shouldn't rise to a challenge; if you're not great at something you shouldn't work to get better at it; women and girls will do your work for you; and, to her daughter and nieces, you are responsible to make sure men look good and men should get credit for your hard work.
BRB. My head has exploded. I need to piece it back together.
Seriously, this is abysmal and, unfortunately, all too common. (I know your 5-year-old didn't make that Pinterest perfect leprechaun trap, Cheryl!) Let boys be responsible for their own work.
Shield Him From All Adversity
This one is super hard for a parent, because nobody wants to see their little one struggle, especially when you know it's within your power to make it easier (or just do something for them). But kids should be challenged. Ultimately they're going to be better for it. And having experience with adversity will encourage them to see their role in alleviating their own problems and take ownership over their interpersonal relationships.
Shield Him From Consequences
I mean, obviously if your child goes to stick a fork in a socket, by all means knock the fork out of his hand. But if he gets in trouble at school for behaving like a little jerk (and that's not personal, because all kids can be little jerks sometimes), don't argue with the teacher that your precious angel couldn't have done anything wrong. Or that any at all punishment is too harsh. Kids should learn, to quote Newton (and Hamilton), that every action has an equal opposite reaction. This makes them more likely to think through their actions and understand (and take responsibility for) their choices.
Let Him Go Back On His Commitments
Obviously this takes some judgment — sometimes it's important and necessary to take a step back from something for one's own mental well-being. But it's also important to raise little boys who understand that a commitment is a commitment and they should be followed through. Otherwise his word means nothing. And if his word means nothing then it's easy for him to be careless with it. Follow-through is an important aspect of being responsible for one's actions. And if he can't follow through for whatever reason (like I said, it happens) he should take backing out of a promise seriously, too.