Accountability Explanation #1
Transitioning Your Child from Innocence to Accountability
Welcome to the Accountability Stage!
Many child development experts talk about the years between ages 7 and 12 as the “easy” years. While in some ways it can actually be more challenging because now there are 3 mindsets to discern between, in other ways--and especially considering the grueling sacrifice and hands on patience required during the younger years--these pre-teen years are easier because the brain IS more connected at age 7 and often more balanced during these years compared to the early years. And the time has not yet come for the massive reconstruction brain work of the teen years ahead.
So let’s talk about these delicate but beautiful transition years that you have with your now older child.
Up to this point, your child has been very vulnerable and in high need of your ability to help with behavioral regulation. Most accountability you’ve seen in your child prior to age 7 or 8 was merely instinctive based on survival or a reaction to the moment. In the Attachment Video section of www.presentparenting.org, I’ve created a few recordings that describe how this early accountability is a type of Primitive brain development that does NOT yet include the mindfulness that adults have, or perhaps I should say that adults SHOULD have, but we often struggle too. Young children are not typically thinking about how to morally behave beyond a single moment in time because Primitive emotional and survival areas of the brain impulsively dominate in response to constant environmental changes, which is why we see such a volatile roller coaster of emotions in toddlers and preschool children. But remember that the brain develops from the inside out and from back to front. So what starts to dominate after the survival areas at the back of the brain are well connected and the emotionally extreme areas on the inside of the brain have had their big starring moments?
Starting around age 7 or 8, a key area of the brain begins to take center stage in its influence over the rest of the brain areas. The purple highlighted area in the brain on the slide is called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, or ACC. It is responsible for detecting conflict and truth vs error and then creating predictions for future expectations and then behaviors based on those predictions. For example, if your child feels happy during mealtime one day and happens to be using the blue cup, your child’s ACC is responsible for noticing if the blue cup is present at future meals and then alerting the defense systems if the yellow cup is presented instead. While this can feel chaotic as a parent, it’s an important step in life to be able to discern differences and organize them alongside the joys or traumas of past experiences.
But because of it’s placement between the emotional brain in the middle and the all important PFC up front, the ACC’s role needs at some point to shift from primarily serving and alerting the emotional brain with primitive, moment to moment expectations to eventually assisting the PFC with more long-term and mindful expectations. This shift becomes noticeable as the ACC begins interacting more and more with the budding prefrontal cortex compared to just the emotional brain. This gradual, but critical shift is what the Accountability Stage is all about.
When you notice that your child is beginning to recognize real truth and use it to assess long-term predictions, expectations, decision-making, and intentional habits, then the window of learning TRUE--not just primitive--accountability is opening up. And when this window opens--usually between ages 7-9--don’t pull the shade down by maintaining complete control of all decisions and outcomes. But rather use these precious pre-teen years as an opportunity to allow your child to start experiencing real life decision-making. Even though your child is still years away from being a mature adult, begin giving your child time and space to decide some of his or her own limits so your child has to pay more attention to real-life positive vs negative outcomes that aren’t completely controlled or absorbed by mom and dad. Taking personal responsibility for simple choices gives your child’s ACC and PFC an opportunity to begin a lifetime of working in harmony together. Trust me, you’ll want your child’s ACC and PFC to be close friends when the teen years hit!
See Slide 2 below
So how do we start the Accountability stage?
Because the ACC is in charge of paying attention to and assessing conflicting information, we don’t like to leave our Accountability Stage kids in the dark or give them the impression that we’re deciding everything behind their backs. When they are younger, they appreciate living moment to moment without having to feel very responsible for what is around the corner or what is happening tomorrow. But as kids approach age 7, they gain an increasing desire to know what’s going on and why various rules and obligations exist. Logical questions and thinking is, in fact, a sign that a child is ready to have a discussion about real-life accountability.
So, around age 7 or 8, we like to show our kids the visual of the Accountability Pyramid for the first time to give them a sense of their long brain development journey from infancy to adulthood and our role as parents along the path. A good way to start out the conversation can be to show a picture of animal brains and have our child notice the size difference in various creatures’ brains and then think about what behaviors various animals are capable of compared to humans...how do various creatures move? communicate? Eat? Build homes? Do any creatures laugh? Or Play? While many creatures have some super-power characteristics that humans don’t have, humans have some pretty amazing skill sets too...can you think of any? What about building with Legos, dancing to music, reading books, drawing pictures?
Essentially we talk with our kids about how the human brain is the most complex brain of all because it contains the largest prefrontal cortex (purple area on the slide below) of all animals. We also share how the human brain actually takes the longest of any creatures’ brains to fully develop. We talk about how it’s important for parents to help children with brain development and how various stages of growth and different circumstances within those stages call for different responses from parents. This Pyramid is meant to explain how kids grow from infants who are completely dependent on parents all the way up to adults who take care of themselves and help other people to do the same. We explain how the Pyramid gives us an order of important things for parents and kids to focus on and how mixing up the order can sometimes mix brains up, too. We talk about how our 7-year-old is coming up on some really important transition years when his or her brain will need to shift from having mom and dad set most of the limits to beginning to learn how to set his or her own personal limits like adults do. And we talk about how this is a mature way to get ready for happier, safer, and more mindful teenage and adult years.
When talking with our kids, we like to focus on the green side of the Pyramid because it highlights the benefits that kids gain as their brains move up the Pyramid. This website has a tab called Pyramid Mindsets which contains a few more details about the different sides of the pyramid. Look through the green side on each stage to educate yourself on the benefits children receive from the various stages and mindsets. And come up with your own list, too, of what your child has to look forward to as his or her brain develops.
If you feel your child is showing genuine interest and somewhat long-term commitment towards understanding true accountability--for example doesn’t forget that we had this discussion a few minutes after it’s over--then it might be time for a more detailed transition into the accountability stage dialogue with them. Click on the video titled “Transition Dialogue” for a sample conversation. If your child is intrigued but not that interested in committing to any responsibility yet, that’s okay. Work on Following and Attachment stage skills until your child is more ready.
And before diving into the accountability stage, you may want to study the other accountability mindset videos on this page to understand more about the signs that your child is ready, to learn about how to lead a mentoring counsel and to better discern how to handle moments when your child makes a poor decision. Also don’t forget to continue practicing personal mindfulness. None of these Accountability Pyramid mindsets are possible without YOU first feeling a general sense of peace in your heart. See the Focus on ME challenges in this section--and in all sections--to prepare your OWN brain to be more mindful and present as your child grows.