In this book (only available in Finnish) psychiatrist Ben Furman M.D. tells the story of Dan, who, as it turns out, has stolen some money from his father. Dan’s parents find a way to deal with his wrongdoing in a constructive fashion helping him take responsibility for his action. The book includes an article for parents and educators where Dr. Furman elaborates on The Steps of Responsibility, a method with which parents can deal constructively with the wrongdoings of children. The translation of the story is provided below.
Father was out washing his car. Mother was cleaning the house. Dan was outside playing ball with his friends. As mum was cleaning Dan’s room, to her surprise, she found several ten-euro notes from within Dan’s night table drawer. Mum counted them. There were eight of them to be exact. Where on earth had Dan gotten so much money, mum thought to herself.
Mum went to dad and said,
— No I haven’t. Perhaps he got the money from grandpa or grandma. Or he has taken it from the drawer of my desk where I keep my cash.
— Oh no, Dan would never do anything like that, exclaimed mum in a horrified tone of voice.
At that mum went to the phone to ring up grandma. She said she hadn’t given any money to Dan for a while and that neither had grandpa.
Could it really be the case that Dan had snatched the money from dad’s drawer? Mum was worried. He ought to know that you just don’t do that. After all, it is stealing to take money from another person.
— Dan has not gotten the money from grandparents, mum said to dad. What shall we do now?
— That’s terrible, exclaimed mum. How could that be possible? Doesn’t he understand that it’s wrong. Have we done something wrong in raising him? Mother was clearly upset about what had happened.
— Don’t worry about it, dad tried to calm mother down. First of all we don’t even know for sure where the money came from and the other thing is that almost all children snatch something at some stage. Even I did it when I was small. I once snatched a chocolate bar from a shop, dad confessed to mum. If Dan has taken the money we simply need to make him understand that he shouldn’t do things like that.
— Yes, and he has to promise never to do it again, mum added.
— I once took some coins from my mother’s purse and bought sweets with it. said mum. I was caught and was punished with a weeklong curfew.
— There you go, said dad. It is not uncommon. The important thing is that we talk with Dan about it and deal with it.
That evening there was a serious conversation at the dinner table.
— I cleaned your room today, Dan, and I found these eight ten-euro notes in your night table drawer. This is a lot of money. Where did you get it?
— I got it from grandma.
Mom waited for a while and then said:
— I called grandma today and she told me she hasn’t given you any such money. Dan lowered his head. He was ashamed. He didn’t want to confess that he had taken the money from dad’s desk drawer.
— I think it is best if you tell exactly how it is, said dad. We do not intend to punish you. We just want to talk to you about it and therefore we need to understand what has happened.
— When did it happen? Asked dad.
— A few days ago, said Dan. He had tears in his eyes.
— How many times have you been to my drawer?
— I don’t remember, said Dan holding back his crying.
— We are not in any hurry. Take your time and think about it, said dad. Have you been to the drawer more than once?
— Yes, I have.
— Two or three times.
— Two times.
— All right, said dad.
— Dan, you surely know that what you have done is wrong. Taking another person’s money without permission is stealing even if it was from a member of your own family.
— I know that, said Dan with an embarrassed look on his face. He was afraid that either mum or dad would next ask him: So why did you do it? He knew he would not have been able to answer that question. Fortunately neither of them asked that question. Instead, dad asked Dan:
— Why shouldn’t a person take another person’s money, asked dad.
— Because it’s not one’s own money, answered Dan.
— That’s right but why shouldn’t a person take someone else’s money, dad continued.
— Because you hurt the other person’s feelings, said Dan.
— You are right, but that’s not all. The money that you take may be put aside for a reason, say for Christmas presents or something else important to be bought, and then all of a sudden there is no money to buy those things. That’s not nice, is it?
— No it isn’t, said Dan.
— If you have taken money from another person without permission do you need to give it back, asked mum.
— Yes, said Dan.
— Is this all the money or have you already used some of it? Asked mum.
— It’s all. I swear. I haven’t used a cent.
Mum handed the money over to Dan and Dan handed them directly back to dad.
— Thanks, said dad.
— Are you going to apologise to dad? Asked mum.
Dan lowered his head and muttered with a soft voice:
— I think it is a good thing that you apologise to your dad, but to be honest I think you should speak up and see him in the eyes when you say to him you are sorry, mum suggested.
Dan looked his dad in the eyes and said ”sorry” again. This time with a louder voice.
— That’s it. Well done, said mum.
— Somehow I think that returning the money and the apology is not quite enough in this case. I think you should also make it up somehow to your dad.
— How can I do that, asked Dan.
— You could perhaps do dad a favour.
— I can wash your car dad, Dan quickly suggested.
— I think I will wash my car myself, said dad, but I can think about it. Let’s agree that I will tell you in the evening how you can make it up to me.
— That’s fine with me, agreed Dan.
After a moment of silence mum said to Dan in a soft voice:
— Will you promise that you’ll never do anything like this again?
— I wont, said Dan.
— We believe you but just to make sure, don’t you think we should have an agreement about what to do should you break your promise?
— I don’t mind. We can have any agreement you like cause I wont take any money from anybody without permission ever again.
— All right. Let’s make the deal that if despite your promise you ever do anything like that again you shall apologise so that your grandparents will also be there when you do it.
— I’m ok with that, said Dan.
— I have come up with an idea of how you can make up to me that you took the money from my drawer, dad said.
— What can I do, asked Dan.
— In one of my drawers I have a huge collection of coins from different countries. I want you to arrange the coins and put the coins from different countries into different jars. And because you are so good in maths, I want you to tell me how much money there is in each container. What do you say?
— That’s cool, said Dan with delight in his voice. He had imagined that in order to make up for what he had done he would need to take on dad’s turn to wash dishes for a year.
— And then there is one more thing, said dad. What will you do if out of the blue you get an urge to take someone’s money without permission?
— I don’t take it, answered Dan.
— Correct. And what do you do instead?
— I ask if I can get some?
— That’s right, said dad, and when your baby sister will be born next summer, and when she grows up, then one day you will teach her not take anybody’s things without permission, that she too needs to learn to ask for permission to take other people’s things.
— I will teach her that, said Dan.
Dad caressed Dan’s head.
— Do you now have the money to buy the Christmas presents, asked Dan.
— Don’t worry about it. I have money for the presents all right, said dad and gave Dan a goodnight kiss.
How do you help a child take responsibility for his or her actions
At some point in their development all children do something wrong or forbidden, such as lying, stealing, bullying, or something else they know to be wrong.
When a child does something wrong the first time, parents usually explain him that what he did was wrong and that he is not supposed to do that. But when the child does the same wrong thing again, it is not so easy for a parent to know what to do. Conventionally it has been thought that children should be punished when they do forbidden things but many parents have found that punishment does not necessarily help children change their behaviour. In fact, punishment may sometimes even make things worse.
So what to do when children do forbidden things? The story of this book describes a method called Steps of Responsibility. In this approach you don’t reprimand or punish the child, or try to explain or teach him a lesson about how wrong his behaviour was. Instead you offer him an opportunity to take responsibility for his behaviour. This means that the child will be given an opportunity to convince his parents, as well as other people, that he will not do anything similar again. But how exactly does the child do that? What does he need to do to prove that his parents need not be afraid that he repeats his wrongdoing?
When a child takes responsibility for his action, he does six things. These are:
♦ He frankly admits to what he has done and is willing to discuss the details of what has happened.
♦ He shows that he understands why what he did is wrong and is able to explain what negative consequences or danger his behaviour caused to other people.
♦ He apologises for what he has done.
♦ He shows his willingness to make up by entering a conversation about how he could do it.
♦ He promises never to do anything similar again and makes an agreement about what will happen if he, despite all, brekes his promise and does something similar again.
♦ He is willing to do something to prevent other children from doing similar things.
When your child has done something wrong, tell him that what he did was wrong and that you want him to take responsibility for his action. Naturally, your child will not understand what taking responsibility means so you will have to explain it to him. You can do it by using the picture of the boy climbing the steps of responsibility.
— Do you know what it means to take responsibility for your actions?
— Do you want me to explain it to you?
— Yeah, do.
— See this picture. This boy has done something that’s forbidden. I don’t know what he has done. Perhaps he has hit another child or he has taken something he was not supposed to take. What do you think he has done?
— Maybe he has hit his baby sister.
— You may be right. Whatever it is that he has done, in this picture he takes responsibility for it. On this first step he does not try to deny what has happened. Instead he admits to what he has done. Doesn’t he look like his admitting to something?
— Yes, he does.
— On this second step he looks in the mirror and thinks. What do you think he is thinking of?
— I don’t know.
— He is thinking about what he has done and he understands why he was not supposed to do it. He realizes that what he did was dangerous and that it caused other people to suffer. I think he feels bad himself thinking about how his behaviour has caused others to feel bad. Do you think so too?
— Yes, I think so too.
— On this third step he has crossed his hands. It means that he says he is sorry. Can you say you are sorry if you have done something that has caused another person to feel bad?
— I can.
— Yes, you can. Now look at this fourth step. Here he has a rose in his hand. What do you think he will do with it?
— He will give it to the person who is feeling bad.
— Sure, or else he will do some service to the person who is feeling bad because of what he did. In this next picture he has his hand on the holy book. Can you guess what he is doing?
— He is promising never to do anything similar again. You know, when you promise something while holding your hand on the holy book it means that you are very serious. It’s like shaking hands after an agreement. Do you think it is good that he promises not to do anything like that again?
— Yes, it is.
— Ok, so now he is here on the last step. Can you see how proud he is? Do you know why he is so proud?
— It’s because he has told some other child not to do what he has done.
When your child understands what taking responsibility means in practice, help him take the steps he needs to take.
Ask your child to talk frankly about what he has done. Your child will speak openly to you about what has happened if he understands that he will not be punished but he will be given an opportunity to take responsibility for his action. Children usually want to admit to what they have done because they experience it as a release.
Ask your child to explain to you why what he did was wrong. You may feel an urge to explain to him why what he did was harmful or dangerous, but try to refrain from answering on his behalf. Let him think about it and to come up with an answer to the question why it is forbidden to do so.
Why shouldn’t you do that?
Because it’s forbidden.
That’s right but why is it forbidden to do so?
Help the child find a way to apologise for what he has done. Don’t force him to apologize. because a forced apology does not help the child take responsibility for his actions. Instead, discuss with the child about to who he should express his apology, when would be a good time to do it and what would be the best way of doing it.
Direct your child to make up for his action. Making up means that your child goes to the person who suffered because of his action and asks that person how he could make up for what he has done. The question is difficult and it may not be easy for the person to provide an answer at once. Therefore your child should give the person enough time to think about a suggestion about how he could make for what he has done.
Ask your child to promise you that he wont do the same thing again. When children are caught doing something forbidden they often spontaneously try to say that they won’t do it again. In order to make his promise more credible ask him to explain to you how he intends to resist the temptation to do the same if an opportunity comes along, and make an agreement with him, in advance, about what is to happen if, despite all this, he breaks his promise.
When your child has taken all the above steps, he has proven that he deserves your trust again. As a seal of this trust your child can now prove to you that he really understands why nobody should do anything like what he did. Therefore, offer him an opportunity to teach another child, or someone else, why nobody should do what he did.
When your child does wrong, there is no use spending any time brooding about why he did what he did. All children sometimes do forbidden things and all children need to learn that they are not supposed to do forbidden things. If you want to help your child understand the difference between right and wrong you don’t need to become upset or worried. Instead you can teach your child to take responsibility for his actions.
You can find more information about the Steps of Responsibility by visiting the steps of responsibility website.