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The One Sentence That Gets My Kids to Take Responsibility

“I ______ ” Fill in the blank.

I call them “I Statements”.

The thing I’ve found with sibling spats at my house, is that is usually takes 2 (or 3) to tango.

I, like most other parents, tire of being sidelined by kids bringing their latest laundry list of sibling complaints.  Their sentences are filled with the words: he, she, they, and what they did to ME!

I started to make my kids back up and begin their sentences with the word I.

How to get your kids to take accountability

I pull them all in the room together and they all talk about their part. Say it with me now “I (fill in the blank with what YOU did).”

Sounds too simple right? The accusing is gone. They are on the spot to only tell me about their own actions (and it’s pretty easy to fill in the gaps when one of them isn’t telling the truth).  It’s also easier to be honest when the person next to you is owning their role and actions. They’ll try to say “I . . . am really mad because so and so hit me.” We back up and I tell them to start over. We’ll stay there until they’ve filled in the blank with their own actions.

At first, you would have thought I put poison in their mouths and paralyzed their tongues. Those sentences taste bad. They are hard to spit out. They make it hard to speak for kids and grown ups alike.

We’ve had to work to get those sentences to come out and to come out quickly. Sometimes it takes time and a lot of reminding them to stop and work through it but the more they do it the easier it gets and the quicker we resolve things.

If they go off track, I literally just remind them to say “I” and then fill in the blank with what they did.

The other sentences that use the word “I” are just as important. “I’m sorry. I did this _____ to you.” Those sentences can be equally hard to spit out.

Starting a sentence with the word “I” might be one of the most important things we can teach our children. For relationships, for careers, for parenting, for taking responsibility and for advocating for yourself – the word “I” matters.

It’s not about taking blame, it’s about owning our actions and moving on. I’ve noticed over time that it’s become easier for my kids to not only own what they’ve done, but also to accept it, even laugh about it, and move on.  Sometimes we laugh (a lot) because when children actually say out loud what they’ve done, they actually realize how ridiculous it sounds (especially for school aged kids, my pre-schooler still struggles with this piece). We’ve had many moments where my oldest says what he actually did to his sisters and he starts laughing (embarrassed) because hearing the words out loud actually illustrates how ridiculous the behavior is.

From a professional perspective, have you ever been in a meeting or worked with someone where something has gone wrong and the person who “dropped the ball” just can’t raise their hand and say “hey, this is what happened, how can we fix it”? Ever tried to have a conversation with someone who has mastered the art of deflection and passive aggression? Nothing gets solved.

How much faster does something get fixed when someone admits that it’s broken and how it broke?

Owning our actions is important.

The moment I knew it had worked forever? When my husband and I were in a silly argument in front seat of the car and all of the sudden the voices from the back seat started saying, “I _____ fill in the blank MOM!”


More on

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Comments (25)

  1. Sarah 09/19/2016 at 5:43 am

    Great idea – I’m totally trying this one! The fighting drives me nuts!

  2. Lesa 06/04/2016 at 3:15 pm

    Wow. What a great idea. We have 5 children ages 12-3 so you can imagine the number of arguments there are a day. I can’t wait to try this out!!

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  4. Jen 03/21/2016 at 7:48 am

    What if your child will not play along? What if they don’t want to start their sentences with I and won’t. Do I punish them? How?

    • Rachael Herrscher 05/30/2016 at 8:15 am

      Most of the time we just stay there until they do. Sometimes it takes awhile. Sometimes we end up laughing because they are being stubborn and won’t spit it out. I do find that sometimes I have to lower the stakes for them admitting their wrong doing. I make the consequences less severe for owing their actions. “You can either use an “I Statement” and tell me now what you did, or you can choose to not use an “I Statement” and get 2 chores.” 🙂

    • John 06/03/2016 at 9:18 pm

      I think sometimes kids need to be listened to first before they do what you ask. I know my kids do anyway. My boys got into a fight yesterday and I had to ask my 9-year-old four times what HE did. Each time he responded with something else of what his brother did.

      I’m not an expert, just a dad, but I think that if you let them talk first a few times, but you always end the conversation with the “I ________” statement, they’ll come to understand better who’s responsible for their actions, and there will be less of the blame game.

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  8. Debbie McCormick 01/21/2016 at 7:32 am

    Great idea – and I like the concept of it. Kids are not completely honest though ( by nature and immaturity) so I have a feeling the “I” statements would never be 100% disclosure. I have four kids and there are many “issues” during a given day. I let them all give their side of the story anyway they want to explain it. Yes, it is mainly “They did this to me” but after hearing everyone’s story I can get a full picture of what really happened. I then use that to explain to each kid how they could have handled things better. They usually understand ( by the end of our “meeting” what part they played in causing the argument.

    • Rachael Herrscher 01/21/2016 at 7:59 am

      You’d be amazed at how much the truth comes out. At first, yes, they don’t give full disclosure, but we can tell when our kids are lying, and their siblings can’t resist lamenting when someone isn’t telling the truth. When you create a safe space for kids to tell the truth, it happens a whole lot more. My consequences are typically a lot more lenient when they’ve all been honest and worked it out. Lying has pretty much been a non-issue as we’ve used this technique.

  9. J benjamin 12/11/2015 at 9:53 am

    I really like this method and think it can be really useful in breaking down barriers caused by blame.
    However, what happens if one party genuinely has no blame in the situation? If one child (or adult for that matter) is literally minding there own business, playing with their toy or doing their own thing and not even remotely doing anything wrong or antagonistic, when the other party walks up and hits them/takes toy/verbally bashes them etc
    How do you expect the truly innocent party to take responsibility with an ‘I…….’ Statement if they haven’t done anything wrong?
    I know most arguments are two sided but not always. I’ve witnessed this over and over again in both children and adults where one party is wholly to blame and yet the innocent party is left feeling very upset and mistreated by being made to take responsibility for something they didn’t instigate or even continue!
    Just wonder how mistrusting the innocent person will become of the justice system imposed on them by parents teachers bosses law etc if this happens to them.

    • Rachael Herrscher 01/21/2016 at 8:07 am

      Saying “I didn’t do anything” and telling the truth is absolutely NOT against the rules. I statements work the same for guilt or innocence. Having said that, I will also say that my kids usually retaliate when they’ve been wronged so they still have a part in the story (even if they are not the one receiving consequences for it)

      • Anthony 05/31/2016 at 5:49 pm

        What if the kid keeps saying “I did nothing”?

  10. Heather 12/09/2015 at 1:23 pm

    I like the concept but I want to know what the next steps are. If the child says, “I hit my brother”, or when they both say that, then how would you deal with it? What’s the next step when it isn’t something that can be laughed off for being silly.

    • Rachael Herrscher 12/09/2015 at 3:01 pm

      At our house it seems to go down like this . . .

      Once I can get my child to own their role and take accountability for it, it’s easier to get them to fix it. The next step is typically an apology or something to right the wrong. It always comes with a conversation with the other person where THEY BOTH take accountability for their part.

      Sometimes that’s it, they all just needed to come clean and sometimes there needs to be a consequence.

      Once they’ve owned their piece, the rest is really so much easier because they are not fighting to keep from taking the blame.

      • janice schutt 05/30/2016 at 7:13 pm

        I often asked them what the punishment should be. They were often harder on themselves then I would have been.

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  12. Tonya 07/20/2015 at 5:07 pm

    “The thoughts of a man’s (or child’s) heart are like deep waters, But the discerning man draws them out.” Drawing out a child’s intention can be a real task. But with skillful use of questions and patience parents can reach their children hearts.

  13. Kimber Emmons 07/13/2015 at 8:45 am

    Excellent. I will be implementing this not only in my home, but also my classroom! So simple but it’ll take a lot of work. Thanks!

  14. MM 06/30/2015 at 11:42 pm

    Are all of your kids neuro-typical? I’m wondering how this would work in kids that have mild neurological disorders. A full HALF of my kids have mild diagnosed disorders that just hover under the surface waiting to boil over and wreak havoc. If they can wrap their little minds around something like this, it would change our world.

    • Rachael Herrscher 07/01/2015 at 9:35 am

      I’d say my kids are pretty on track developmentally. I think the cool thing about this though is that it’s so straight forward. It’s easy to test out and try. However, I will say that most kids need a lot of repetition on this and different personalities are tougher than others. It’s all about repetition and consistency.

  15. Pam 06/25/2015 at 8:01 pm

    I always knew you were awesome. This just confirms it. This. Is. Genius. I will be doing this from now on. Bravo!

    • Rachael Herrscher 07/01/2015 at 9:35 am

      lol! You are always too nice to me! Keep me posted – let me know what happens at your house!

  16. Daniel Prokop 06/17/2015 at 7:01 pm

    Hi Rachael, nice article – teaching children responsibility by owning their feelings is great. Key difference between healthy adult and perpetual child is taking responsibility I cover this in ‘Leaving Neverland (Why Little Boys Shouldn’t Run Big Corporations) all the best