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“Our boys age almost 5 and 6 argue a lot as all boys do and it gets physical sometimes.”

“We have a strict non-violence policy so if they get physical and someone is hurt the perpetrator gets punished SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1. They protest being punished by saying, “I didn’t mean to hurt him!” If a child hurts his brother should he be punished whether he meant it or not?”

“We have 4-year-old twin boys. One is bigger than the other and can inflict more damage in the inevitable scuffles but the smaller one is sneakier so he makes up for his size. Our rule is that if one twin hurts the other he goes into time-out as punishment. Lately they protest being punished roaring “I didn’t mean it!” or “I didn’t know that would hurt him!” Sometimes it was an accident but we feel the one who caused the accident should still be punished.”

The first question just arrived by email. The second was written in 2005. And future parents will continue to struggle with how to teach children a big life lesson: accountability for one’s actions.

Hurting a person is a serious matter whether it is intentional or not. At some point in childhood every child must face up to personal accountability for his or her actions. When? Well, obviously infants and little kids can’t grapple with this weighty concept. Nonetheless every time they hurt another child they must be removed from the scene of battle so they learn that biting and hitting hurt and are never permitted. In a sense the parents are playing the accountability card for their child.

By age four, children have developed a sense of right and wrong and should be expected to have reasonable control over their behavior. But they are at the very beginning stage of moral development. They know the rules, but they act “good” out of imitation or fear of punishment because their egocentrism does not permit them to put themselves in another’s shoes or see the bigger picture of why pro-social behavior is required of all of us.

“I didn’t mean it!” is part of being egocentric. If you feel the earth revolves around you it just doesn’t seem right to be punished for something you didn’t mean to do. You grudgingly accept punishment if you deliberately hit your brother but if you were running up the stairs and your elbow happened to give your brother a fat lip why should you be punished? It’s not fair!

And, of course, how tempting to pretend you didn’t do it deliberately to get out of being punished! Maybe the “sneaky” twin, tired of being bested by the bigger one, figures out he can inflict hurt by shoving with his elbow instead of punching and get away with it. And what about one child deliberately goading the other one into taking the first punch?

How does the parent who didn’t see the deed sort it all out? How is culpability assigned? The answer is that parents cannot always assign culpability correctly or fairly. Neither can the courts or insurance companies for that matter.

There are three possible directions a parent can take. 1) Always punish a child who hurts another. 2) Only punish a child when you have seen the act. 3) Punish both children when one has been hurt. Actually I favor the third option. Inflict a modified form of your usual punishment by separating the children and telling them they cannot play together because someone has been hurt. When they figure out how to play together nicely they can do so.

By the time a child is five or so parents should start expecting accountability. To me accountability means that you: 1) Admit you did a wrong. 2) Accept the consequences of the wrong you did. 3) Atone for the damages caused by your wrong.

Saying, “I didn’t mean it!” won’t cut it any more. The child who caused the hurt has to say, “I’m sorry.” in a sincere way and has to properly atone for the wrong that was done. The atonement could be a punishment like time-out or restitution of a broken toy.

It takes a while for a child to develop a working sense of accountability but our social contract demands that everybody becomes accountable–every child old enough to understand, every grown-up, even the president.

The two biggest lessons of childhood that every child must learn are 1) We do not hurt others. 2) We are responsible for our actions. Once again because these principles take a long time to understand and incorporate into our behavior, savvy parents start the lessons early and reinforce them frequently.