It's almost bedtime and you're pretty sure that Jason, your fourth-grader, hasn't done his homework. You're a conscientious dad and you intend to do your job, which, you believe, is to make sure your son gets good grades in school by being a responsible student.
"Jason, did you do your homework?" you ask, a stern frown creasing your face.
Your son looks sheepish. "I did it," he protests weakly.
After digging through his binder you can't find it. "You didn't do it, Jason, and you lied about it! That's it! You're grounded this whole week. I hate liars."
Speaking of responsibility and grades, I'd give this dad a big fat F. Major failure.
Why so bad? Because his communication is loaded with blame, the single most destructive communicational behavior. Now Jason will focus on his father's mean and humiliating attack, and less on his missing homework.
That's always the case when blame is used when dealing with a problem. The resulting blowup transfers the focus to the reaction -- and away from solving the problem.
As I researched and wrote "Beyond Blame," I learned that blame is our most complicated and misunderstood behavior. Blame is deeply rooted in both our thinking and our speech. It's many things at once, and all of them bad. It's also profoundly misunderstood because we think it's necessary to correct behavior, to assign responsibility.
And yet, as the above scene demonstrated, it's horrendously ineffective.
Parents are especially susceptible to using blame because their worries about their child's behavior and performance trigger anxiety. And anxiety is the primary emotional force behind blame because whenever we feel even the slightest amount of anxiety about anyone (or anything), we resort to blaming someone (or something) for causing our distress.
But what exactly is blame? Why is it so destructive?
First, blame is really a composite of four behaviors: criticism, accusation, punishment and humiliation. Each can be used either separately or all four wrapped up into one massively destructive communication.
The fourth-grader Jason was blasted with all four at once! His father criticized his actions, accused him of being a liar, punished him by grounding him for a week, all of which was deeply humiliating.
The sad conclusion is that the onslaught of negatives emotions make Jason far less willing to cooperate.
And yet, what's a parent to do? Is it possible to discipline your child without using blame?
Absolutely. But it requires a shift in thinking. Once you realize that criticizing, accusing, punishing or humiliating your child does not create a collaborative atmosphere, does not bring your child closer to you in a shared purpose, and instead focuses attention away from solving the problem, you will begin to enforce your rules in a far more constructive way.
Let's replay the scene. Dad asks Jason in a quiet voice, "Did you do your homework?" He checks the binder: no homework.
Now dad's upset. He takes a few breaths, allows his feelings to settle, and asks himself, "What's my goal with my son?" His immediate goal is to not create a massive display of anger and anxiety, especially just before bedtime. His higher vision, his long-term goals as a father, is to create a loving, collaborative connection with his son.
So he says, calmly: "Jason, I'm upset you didn't do your homework. Really upset. And your teacher will be too." He pauses to allow his words to sink in. Jason is already feeling bad.
"Son, we need to work together to make sure this doesn't happen again. And in the future, don't lie to me." That's all.
Fantastic! No blowup. No outpouring of negative emotion because there's no criticism or accusation, punishment or humiliation.
And yet, his son has gotten the message while still remaining emotionally connected to his father.
Too wimpy and permissive? I strongly disagree. Many parents hold the mistaken belief that an explosion of anger, threats and denunciation is required in order to get across a message of displeasure or disappointment.
Not true. Children (and all other beings) are very sensitive to criticism. It makes them feel bad. (We all hate it.) All that's needed is a simple statement of what's wrong, what did or did not happen. And then--in the most collaborative and loving way possible--a declaration of what has to change. Meaningful change always comes from the inside. The less it's imposed and demanded, the more effective and long-term it will be.
Here's another example. Megan, age twelve, frequently teases her ten-year-old brother. Her brother complains and Sarah, their mom, yells at Megan and orders her to her room. Megan yells back that she didn't start it! A familiar roundabout.
One day Sarah accepts the fact that her way of handling the situation is not working. But how can she get her daughter to stop teasing her brother?
The first step is to stop using blame; stop criticizing, accusing and punishing. But what's left? Sarah must use her parental power, which she's got in abundance. But she must use her power strategically. She must be smarter than her kids.
So Sarah announces, "When you guys don't get along for any reason -- for any reason -- I stop doing nice things for you, including dinner. Cold cereal is all you get."
Notice there's no blame in that statement. Sarah is stating the obvious and holding to it. "You guys perform and so will I."
Do her kids complain! You bet. But now the focus is now on why Sarah is not cooking dinner. The typical roundabout of teasing, blaming and blaming back has stopped. And Sarah is far less upset. It takes a few days of cold cereal for Megan to get the point, but she eventually does because it's in her best interest.
Yes, finding alternatives to blame takes thought and planning, but parents are supposed to be more thoughtful than their children, and to plan ahead for their emotional as well as physical future.