Following Explanation #1
Wait Until 8
When should I begin to expect true accountability from my child?
What do you mean a child isn’t capable of being accountable until 8-ish or independent until they reach the late teens? My 3yo cleans up his toys when I tell him to, insists on putting on his own shoes, and goes to the bathroom by himself. Aren’t those signs of accountability, self-discipline and independence?
Yes. It is correct that young children are capable of climbing to the top of the pyramid with many skills throughout their growing up years long before they reach adulthood. (Hallelujah!!😅)
However, there’s a big difference between EXPECTING a child to be 100% accountable, self-motivated, and independent all the time vs ALLOWING a child to experiment with these concepts of their own free will and on their own unique timeline.
At Present Parenting, I caution parents to beware of disciplinary tactics that corner a child into 100% accountability before their brains are ready for it. These tactics typically include spanking, lectures, isolated timeouts, manipulative rewards or punishments, and parent/child contracts that threaten to take away privileges or make a child “pay” for poor behavior. Instead, I recommend primarily using the attachment and following mindsets all the way up until about age 8-ish--which, trust me I know, can feel like an incredibly long time.
Continue below to hear more about why it's wise to “Wait until 8” before starting the Accountability Stage.
A young child never deserves a guity sentence.
Wait until 8 isn’t meant to be a rigid lumping of 100% accountability onto your child’s shoulders on their 8th birthday. Rather, “Wait until 8” is meant to be a catchy reminder to withhold all guilty sentences from young children because they are innocent.
Yes, children make mistakes, but that’s because they still have a primitive brain that hasn’t reached the human capacity to be socially mindful or to be wisely responsible on a consistent basis yet.
That’s not their fault. While they are waiting for their prefrontal cortex to develop, they are completely innocent.
This understanding was a game-changer for me. It meant that yelling, timeouts, withholding privileges, and making my child pay for any of their mistakes was useless--and in fact harmful. I was acting no different than a judge who sentenced the wrong guy. No wonder walls went up around my child’s heart and we had to work through complex PTSD symptoms for years to come.
Shame on ME.
And so I changed. Present Parenting shifted my focus and taught me how to be responsible for my innocent child’s behavior in mindful ways until my child’s brain was strong enough to take over handling accountability on its own step by step. My efforts to change myself empowered all of us. Peace gradually returned.
Think to yourself today: Is my child suffering because I have dished out guilty sentences way too young? If so--and if you want to change--stay with me and I’ll help you.
Momentary vs. True Accountability
Let’s differentiate between what I call ‘momentary accountability’ and ‘true accountability’.
Momentary accountability happens as a reaction to the environment and may--or may not--lead to consistent positive behavior. It is unlikely to include much concrete prefrontal cortex (PFC) participation and is therefore dependent upon fluctuating circumstances and moods.
True accountability occurs when someone is mature enough to pause, observe, feel and decide. True accountability heavily involves the PFC and feels more permanent despite a changing environment.
Children under age 8-ish have brains with sporadic attention spans and dramatically shifting emotions. This occurs because the back and inside of the brain develop first to respond to and protect an innocent child in an uncertain environment. Reactiveness is a necessary human survival mechanism.
The PFC--which is responsible for wise, thoughtful, and balanced behavior--doesn’t get strong enough to become a very consistent player in decision-making and behavioral regulation until about age 7 or 8-ish. And even then it’s only the beginning of a very long road towards adult maturity.
So, yes, my 6yo can act very grown up in one moment, but she won’t the next. And that’s okay. I will celebrate moments of momentary accountability--YAY! that she cleaned up today or responded nicely to her younger brother this time or had a positive moment of transition after tech time was over!!
But I don’t expect much true accountability until her brain is a bit more developed. Because of this, I won’t set up parent/child disciplinary contracts to commit her to being 100% responsible yet. For example, I won’t say to my 6yo, “I know you know how to behave. Remember that back-talking/whining is unacceptable? Since you complained about stopping your game, that means that you also chose to lose device privileges for the rest of the week.” This kind of discipline is like a guilty sentence that assumes she has a consistently strong PFC already, but she doesn’t.
So if she’s really struggling in a given moment, I’ll keep using the attachment and following mindsets as my primary disciplinary focus until she’s at least 8.
Allow your child's ACC to transition the brain.
Around age 7 or 8, I hypothesize that a key area of the brain begins to take center stage in its influence over establishing long-term brain balance. The yellow highlighted area in the brain on this post is called the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC. It is responsible for detecting conflict or truth vs error and then creating predictions for future expectations, which leads to behaviors based on those predictions.
I like to think of the ACC as a major center for conscious awareness that then triggers acts of determination.
For example, if a child feels happy at mealtime and connects this joy to 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 awareness and determination can feel chaotic from a parent’s perspective, the ability to consciously discern differences and organize them alongside the joys or traumas of past experiences is an important stepping stone toward maturity.
But what’s so significant about the ACC at age 8-ish? The way I see it, because of its placement BETWEEN the emotional brain on the inside and the executively important PFC up front, the ACC’s role needs to at some point shift from primarily serving and alerting the emotional circuits in creating child-like, moment to moment expectations to eventually assisting the PFC in generating more long-term, mindful expectations. This shift becomes noticeable as the ACC interacts more with the budding prefrontal cortex compared to just the emotional, motor, and survival circuits.
Nurturing this gradual, but critical shift is what the Accountability Stage (ages 7-12) is all about.
I believe that a child who is overwhelmed with too much accountability too young may get confused about what their ACC should pay attention to and/or may develop an ACC that deactivates, misjudges situations or signals far too many reactive behaviors because in coping with SO much that is “wrong”--without a PFC helping out yet--what other options does the ACC have?
So we keep true accountability on our shoulders until our child is a good solid 8 years old.
Develop your own prefrontal cortex.
Waiting to shift the weight of accountability until a child has a developed brain enough to carry it can feel grueling at times. But it can also make us stronger and wiser adults, so it's actually a win-win. After raising 6 children through the Attachment and Following stages and living day to day with 2 more who are still years away from the Accountability Stage, I have a tip for you that has helped me increase my parental mindfulness endurance.
If you’re surrounded by little ones all day, give this Focus on ME experience a try: create your own PARENTING yoga poses.
Let me explain...
Yoga became a small hobby of mine back when I realized how important mindfulness is. I dutifully practiced my mountain and tree and downward dog poses. But a BIG problem became obvious rather quickly. As soon as I started stretching in any particular direction, I became the jungle gym for multiple children.
As a student of brain science, it occurred to me that perhaps I didn’t need solitary space and time to do yoga. I just needed to invent a few new poses that fit my circumstances AND still strengthen my mind, body, and soul.
How about Tantrum Pose: Can I feel steady and strong and wise for as long as my toddler can scream? Can I remember to breathe?
What about On-My-Toes Pose: How long can I swiftly move from task to task while still keeping my head above water? Do my feet and hands receive the gratitude they deserve during this pose?
Or Good-night Pose: Can my heart, mind, and body embrace lying still with my restless child at the end of the day? Do I notice the beauty of my child's heart beating?
You get the idea. Parenting yoga is a pretty intense and incredible personal mindfulness experience with no babysitter required.
Go ahead and try it. Make up your own poses. Decide which parenting moves will stretch you physically, mentally, and spiritually and practice them. Often. Don’t worry--your kids will give you daily challenges to help you reach your goals. 😉
If you think of poses, share them in the comments for all of us to try!