Getting Kids to Take Responsibility for Their Own Behavior

Dear Dr. Linda,

We have a son entering ninth grade and we’re truly concerned. He’s a nice kid but doesn’t get the best grades. It’s not because he can’t do the work. We actually don’t know what it is. But when we talk to him about it, he always—and we mean always—blames someone else for the low grades.

It began around fifth grade so, at first, we believed him, but it continued all through middle school. We’ve grounded him, had meetings with the teachers, you name it. It never stopped. In fact, it’s gotten worse. He always blames someone else when his team loses a game—it’s always the ref’s fault. If he strikes out in baseball, he blames the pitcher. We’re concerned that he’ll never succeed in life and just blame others for his failures. What’s wrong with him? How do we deal with this?

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Concerned Mom and Dad

Dear Concerned Mom and Dad,

Blaming others for low grades or missed homework is not a new tactic for underachieving kids. It began years ago with “…the dog ate my homework.” It has now evolved into, “I handed it in but my teacher lost it,” “I did the homework, but I left it in my locker and the teacher didn’t let me get it,” to “I didn’t pass the test because the teacher asked questions on stuff s/he never taught and wasn’t in any book we have.”

Many kids who don’t get the grades they (and/or their parents) want always to blame someone else. These are the same kids that, as you said, blame the ref or the pitcher for losing or striking out. They do not take responsibility for themselves. It’s never their fault.

This behavior usually starts around 9 or 10 years old. It does not change and even gets worse as they move through the grades if a parent or teacher doesn’t step in and change the dance. If the adults in their lives only react to each incident with negative consequences and don’t help the child learn from the situation, it usually stays with them and they continue blaming others for all their failures for the rest of their lives.

The cause of this behavior varies. Here’s just a few of the reasons.

• These children can’t live up to the standards created by their parents or themselves because the standards are unrealistic for kids his or her age.

• They may not do homework because they truly don’t understand the topic.

• They may not do homework because they’re actually tired after a full day of school and afterschool activities and don’t have the mental or physical strength to think.

• They may be totally disorganized (but don’t know how to not be) and miss assignments. They have poor time management skills. Or they simply don’t want to do it, not able to connect the dots relating to goal-setting.

The reasons are many and the excuses vary, but they relate to the same issue. Something stands in the way of his learning to take responsibility for his own behavior.

How do you change this behavior? The good news is that your son is still young enough to help. His behavior is a habit, but it isn’t “hard-wired” yet. Here’s are some things to try:

• Each time he gets a low grade or misses a homework assignment, focus only on that grade or assignment. Write down three options he has so it doesn’t happen again. Keep stressing that the teacher’s grades are not at stake, that his poor grades won’t affect the teacher—only him. When he says that the teacher lost his paper, ask him what the other kids did so that s/he didn’t lose their papers. (If everyone’s paper was lost, it’s a different problem.)

• Meet with the teacher (with him present, if possible) and determine how he can make sure he never loses the paper again. Get a commitment from him.

• Have him email the assignment directly to the teacher. Follow this same routine with each assignment or test grade in which he blames someone else.

• Address even the sports behavior. Focus on helping him develop batting skills so that he can hit the ball no matter who the pitcher is.

If his behavior doesn’t change, make an appointment with his school counselor and/or psychologist or with a professional outside of school. But first, look at your own responses to him when he blames someone else. Kids learn these kinds of things from the adults around them, and it’s likely that you play a role in why he blames others, not the least of which is that he’s avoiding what he thinks is your disappointment. It may be that your son doesn’t accept responsibility for his own behavior because you may not be accepting one important responsibility of your own—finding out what’s really going on with your wonderful son.

Dr. Linda

If you have a question to ask Dr. Linda about your child or a school related situation, she can be reached at

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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