Accountability Explanation #2

Signs of True PFC Accountability

When is a child ready for TRUE accountability, rather than just primitive, in-the-moment accountability? What are signs that a child’s ACC is trying to work more with the PFC rather than primarily with the emotional brain?

A key concept to consider as you decide when to begin your child’s transformation from innocence to true accountability is DON’T force the transition! It will come naturally as you learn to mentor your child down a path of recognizing and reflecting on reality. As you ponder when to begin this big shift towards true accountability, here are a few additional guidelines that might be helpful in your unique situation:

Number 1: Transitioning to the accountability stage is not black and white so don’t stress about getting it “exactly right”. It honestly takes mature parental mindfulness--which I hope the attachment and following mindsets have helped you increase--but even some practice and trial and error, too, to discern whether a child is ready for parents to begin expecting true accountability or not. With that in mind, the first rule of thumb is to patiently wait longer if you’re not sure if now is the right time. Transforming late is typically better than transitioning too early. Just like my daughter’s ballet teacher is watching for significant ankle strength and technique milestones...and then may wisely still have us wait another semester before giving the okay to buy pointe shoes, leaning on the patient side with this pyramid timeline is a huge key to success in the accountability stage.

Number 2: Another important concept to understand is that children don’t transition to full accountability overnight. Just like the attachment and following stages took years, so will the accountability stage. And while you may understand and respect that wiring brains takes time, you will likely still be tempted to feel anxious about your child’s new progress if your goal is to hurry up and rush towards the next stage of self-discipline in less than a year. So before you get started, set realistic expectations in your mind and heart that this stage of learning TRUE accountability for the first time is meant to take many years. Let time do its job. Remember all that patience and mindfulness required of you during the attachment and following stages? You should be well-prepared for the accountability stage. And you should be motivated to be patient because now that your child’s ACC is stepping up its game, your child will be much more capable of keenly observing how truly mindful you are--or not--as you go through this stage together.

Number 3: Beware of manipulative systems that try to force a child’s transformation between innocence and true accountability. There are many quote-unquote “positive parenting” ideas out there that include giving children choices and a set of consequences in order to teach the child to control his or her own behavior. While consequence systems can work short-term--especially if they feel like a relief to the child because losing privileges feels nicer than having a parent yell or spank--these “systems of consequences” can still be ineffective and even harmful long-term. Why? When a parent uses the threat of a predetermined consequence to control a child’s choices or to regulate the child’s emotions, the specific goal in doing so is to make a child feel solely responsible for the weight of the situation. There are 2 major problems with this concept.

First: By making the child feel completely responsible, the parent is assuming that the child is capable of TRUE PFC accountability already, and the child likely isn’t. In children under age 8--AND during stressful times for years to come--the ACC and PFC don’t have much experience in working together yet. So while issuing consequences in response to your child’s behavior does trigger your child’s ACC to take note that something is wrong, the ACC will likely call on the emotional, primitive brain connections for help in dealing with the stress of the moment, which cultivates a spirit of moment-to-moment reactiveness in your child, NOT the TRUE accountability that you want. If this happens repeatedly, it can actually CAUSE an over-activation of your child’s primitive brain and a shut down of the PFC, which is the opposite direction you want brain development to go long-term.

The second problem with expecting a young child to feel the complete weight of choices and consequences prematurely is that it puts a wedge between parent and child. Even the most matter-of-fact parents who stoically issue consequences without frustration are still sending a loud message that gets interpreted by the child as you vs me. It appears to the child--and often is true--that the parent is using the consequence to self-defend against having to carry the weight themselves of yet another tough parenting moment. And during the precious attachment and following years when the parent should still be responsible for the child’s imbalances, issuing consequences instead proves to the child that if mom or dad are going to self-defend, so must I...which, you guessed it--triggers the child’s primitive brain into action, and not the PFC.

Thus long-term guilt and shame and primitive reactiveness and defensiveness are often the results of such well-meaning consequences systems. In children over age 8 when the ACC and PFC should be working together a little more, it’s still more effective to mentor the child on real-life consequences rather than make up parental consequences just to control behavior. Mentoring activates the PFC. Parental control activates the primitive brain. So if you find you have to rely on consequences to get your child to behave, this is a sign that you need to spend more time working on the attachment and following mindsets with your child--even if it’s just to help YOU get to a more peaceful state in your parenting before moving on to the accountability mindset. Essentially, if your child’s PFC and ACC aren’t ready to function as great partners yet naturally--without systems of contrived consequences--that’s okay. Let your child be innocent a little longer and keep looking for the cues I’m about to mention in #4.

This brings us to number 4: What ARE the signs that your child is ready for true accountability?

As your child approaches age 7 or 8 or 9, you’ll be watching for consistent cues that she or he is ready for true PFC accountability.

For example: Does your child ask questions about reality and try to comprehend real answers: a classic question is : Is Santa real? How does he get down the chimney? OR How do you know a tornado isn’t going to come tonight? OR How do people get to the moon? How do astronauts know what to do?...these types of questions can give an opportunity to explain why receiving an education is important.

Another common cue is the desire to be more in control of choices. This often comes in the form of defiance towards parental control. Don’t be offended by this, but see it as a sign that your child might be ready to have a conversation about taking the next step towards making personal choices.

Another cue is a greater understanding of time. Children under age 7 typically have a hard time grasping more than just today or even this hour and this minute. They beg and beg to know when something in the future is going to happen, and they rely on us to keep telling them because they just can’t comprehend time themselves yet. So when a child STOPS asking when...when...when repeatedly, this is a sign that he or she can process and feel somewhat at peace with how long a week or month is. Having this skill intact is what makes true mentoring possible.

On the slide: The phrase “solid” complaints means--not just an in-the-moment complaint because your child is grumpy and tired and hungry, but a complaint that shows that your child is thinking about how things should work in the future...example: complaining about not getting a toy at the store and then beginning to show interest in understanding how money actually works...What do you mean it costs more than I have? Well, how can I earn more??? doesn’t just appear at the bank? Ahh, mom and dad have to work to have money to buy food and pay for our house...and it’s possible to run out of money...So, I will have to work hard to get money too...perhaps harder than that toy is worth. *Your child’s train of thoughts may not go that far on the first complaint, but watch for when complaints start triggering a full-circle effect that encourages your child to consider how his or her own actions can actually affect future outcomes. Asking questions about fairness and wanting to comprehend both sides is another sign that your child’s ACC is starting to partner more with the PFC.

Young children tend to have many fears, most of which are overly dramatic and relatively unrealistic like monsters under the bed and bad guys lurking around every corner. This is normal and okay and most of these fears will be dealt with using the attachment or following mindsets. But some worrying about the future is actually a sign that your child notices reality and is ready to be mentored in the accountability stage...One example is when my daughter was about 8 and she noticed that grown-ups seem to know where to go on streets and she felt sincere worry that she would get lost when she started driving some day because she hadn’t yet learned how to read maps. Her ability to notice what adults were up to and her recognition that she wasn’t capable yet but needed to be at some point in a certain skill was a sign that her ACC wasn’t just begging for help from the emotional brain to help her with a single moment sticky situation, but was actually calling on her PFC to step up long-term and help her get ready for the future. So, in that moment I took the chance to reassure her that she had many years to learn how to navigate streets. We looked at maps for a few minutes as I answered a few basic questions. Then I challenged her to trust me in helping her set and complete goals with her regular school work as well, because simple steps now would help her be fine as an adult. She listened and caught a very small glimpse of how to control her own future. I was pleased because thousands of very small glimpses eventually turn into some pretty powerful brain connections.

Finally, if you feel that your child can pause long enough to ponder deeper, more mature thoughts and if you feel your child feels empowered and able to process the thought of “YOU can do something about your wishes and worries and hopes and dreams!” then it’s time to begin accountability stage conversations.