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Whenever children misbehave, to whatever extent, talk usually turns to who is responsible.

More often than not, attention turns to the parents of the misbehaving child.  While a natural and somewhat obvious reaction, you could claim that it is an easy, even lazy, one.  Given there are numerous cases of children that behave well at home but poorly at school, or vice versa, surely it is impossible to say definitively that parents are wholly accountable for what their children do?

At the same time, much of what could be responsible for the behavior of a child can link back directly to the parents.  A parent might say, “A computer game made my child behave in a violent manner,” but the response will always center on why a child was playing Grand Theft Auto, for example, in the first place.

In general, a child’s social setting and any emotional problems linked to specific medical conditions are the only real factors really outside of parents’ jurisdiction.  We have to acknowledge, however, that even in these cases there are things at parents can do to manage their behavior.

Social Circles

When children head to school, it is an exciting time for all involved, albeit a scary one.  These feelings soon dissipate, however, the first time a child returns home having heard a swear word during break time, or hits you on the basis that another child did the same to them.

Most parents in that situation would likely want to deal with the parents of the other child, but venting their spleen is not a means of effectively managing your own child’s behavior.  Of course, they might still speak to the other parents and most certainly, the schoolteacher, but the issue at hand is dealing with the child.

The difficulty that often arises in this situation is that schools and crèche groups will often deny hearing any bad language, or witnessing unacceptable behavior.  It is easy for parents to get irritated by this, but unfortunately, there is little we can do but to take responsibility and deal with it ourselves.  Irrespective of our feelings towards other parties that may be involved, behavioral management of our own children comes first.

This indicates that parents should be responsible for their children’s behavior, however that there should also be a better understanding of outside influences or mitigating circumstances that may be at play.

One point often debated is at what stage children should begin taking responsibility for their behavior.  It is one thing to say that a six-year old who misbehaves is doing so because of poor parenting.  Does the same apply to a teenager?  Even the strongest parents are liable to find their children rebelling at some stage.  If a 14-year old plays truant from school, or steals an item from the store, can a parent really be responsible?  It is around this that the ‘lazy’ blaming of parents thinking centers.

Emotional Medical Difficulties

The biggest impact on a children’s behavior on a medical level is ADHD, the emotional and behavioral disorder.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 10% of children in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD.  It is important to note that the estimate comes from a number of parent surveys relating diagnosis, so the actual number is potentially higher or lower either way based on parents ‘self-diagnosing,’ or a failure to recognize a ‘behavior issue’ as potential ADHD.

Despite an increase in awareness of the disorder, ignorance still reigns supreme with ADHD.  Many a parent is subjected to “any excuse” and other insults when it comes to explaining behavior issues in their children.

Even when it is acknowledged that a child indeed is diagnosed with ADHD, parents are often blamed, whether it is linked with diet, upbringing, or another factor.  This is despite strong evidence that genetics play a key role in the development of ADHD, although it is unknown which genes, individually or in combination, are responsible for the condition.

Conventional wisdom – meaning what the general population believes, rather than what necessarily represents the truth – holds that diet is a contributory factor.  While foods with high sugar content and ‘E numbers,’ for example, are accepted to disrupt concentration in the short-term, there is no consistent evidence that they are an underlying factor in the development of ADHD.  This immediately invalidates anyone who has tried the “I never gave my kids any rubbish” approach.

In cases where a child suffers from ADHD it is impossible to say parents are at fault, and the ‘blame game’ should not happen.

Troubled Upbringing

While exploring the social issues associated with child behavior, we touched briefly on the age at which children should take responsibility for their own actions, and the debate surrounding this.  Of course, each society is different in this respect, as well as in terms of deciding what is and is not acceptable behavior.  Social construction theory, supported by the late, renowned academic Thomas Szasz specifically in relation to ADHD, is a great example of this.

A troubled upbringing, whether we take this as having been subject to violence or sexual abuse as a child, having witnessed it, or another element such as having had a detached relationship from our parents, can undoubtedly contribute to behavior problems.

While society may decide what is right and wrong, the problem here is that a child has had little or no guidance around where the line is drawn.  This is how the situation arises that we explored at the beginning, where a child can be poorly behaved at home, yet not at school.  Often, this is because guidance, leadership, and importantly, time, has been given to the child to help them develop.

At the same time, many in society are guilty of looking at children with behavior problems, even as they develop into teenagers and young adults, and dismissing them due to their upbringing.  All this achieves is the creation of further feelings of isolation and disenchantment with the world and society as a whole, and can lead to further erratic or ‘unacceptable’ behavior or problems with mental illness.

It is a sad indictment that such scenarios still exist where children with problems are instantly written off, and not given the guidance they would surely benefit from.  Admittedly, not every child will take the opportunity, and some will cause a problem even if they have had a good, stable upbringing, but who are we to judge without giving each a chance?

More focus on giving a child every opportunity to succeed at a young age would manifest itself in a reduction of crime and the work of police and probation officers in later years, surely.

Blame the Parents?

It cannot be right to blame parents for the behavior of children when the full background of a situation is not known or understood.  Of course, people will make snap judgments on everything from a child learning a swear word, to an ADHD diagnosis, or them shoplifting as a teenager based on nothing but their own opinions.

Clearly, in some situations parents have to be fully accountable for their children.  We can think back now to the child who first swore, and where did they learn the word themselves?  Word games and drawing books are not filled with expletives, are they?  However, it would be wrong to resign ourselves to the attitude of “it is a part of life,” as even a small behavior problem as a child can quickly escalate if not dealt with effectively.  When Rudy Giuliani was the Mayor of New York City, he cut the murder rate significantly by ensuring the police dealt with even the smallest issue.  In children, parents need to be strong enough to deal with even the smallest, most innocuous seeming behavior problem.

Products of Society

No matter how many books are written or ‘expert opinions’ there are about parenting, nothing is ever going to exist that can get anyone to do it perfectly each time.  Nor are we ever likely to understand the full extent of factors that can contribute to the behavior of children.  However, we are able to put into practice what we do know, and as our knowledge base continues to expand, we will all have the tools to do as good a job as possible.

Ultimately, parents are products of the society in which they are raised and by association so are their children.  Parents should take as much responsibility as they can for everything their child does, however society should do more to recognize that there can be factors outside of the direct influence of parents, and that society as an entity itself should take a share of accountability.

Most parents put enough pressure on themselves as it is, without everyone else looking to heap ‘blame’ on them at every turn.  One important thing that we do not do enough is to praise parents when their child is a success, perhaps more of this and less of the blame game is the way forward, celebrate the positive examples instead of forever accentuating the negatives.

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