The other day I heard something that caught me off guard. As I scrolled Twitter, someone asked “how is calling the Coronavirus ‘the Chinese flu’ racist and calling meddling in the election ‘Russian hacking’ not.” The answer is not only straightforward, it shows a blueprint for better relationships. It’s all about accountability vs. blame in relationships.
John, Debby and Some Broken Furniture
John and Debby are brother and sister. They live with their parents in a blueish-grey two-story house in the southeastern tip of Minnesota. They are good kids for the most part, but, like most kids, they can be a little mischievous.
During winter break, unable to meet with their friends, they got a little antsy. John, got out his pocket knife and started whittling a block of wood at the coffee table. Debby, started meandering around the house.
After a bit of whittling, John had a crazy idea: the coffee table had a perfect spot to make a little design. Without really thinking about it, he started to carve into the side, a little at first, but bigger as he went along. Before he knew it he had carved out an area about 12 inches long.
As he stopped for a second to admire his work, his smile immediately fell as he realized what he had done – and what this could mean when his parents saw it.
At that moment, he heard a crash. As she was meandering, Debby knocked over a lamp. Both kids froze. They didn’t know it yet, but they were about to understand accountability vs. blame in relationships.
Footsteps and Heartbeats
As John and Debby stood frozen, they heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps. They looked at each other in panic. They knew they were in trouble. They could feel their hearts beating wildly and the adrenaline made the panic all the worse.
As their parents entered the room, the scene was clear: the coffee table was marred, the lamp was broken, and the kids were both sheepishly downcast and ready for the hammer to fall.
What’s happened here is two different acts: one of intention and one not. John has deliberately defaced the coffee table. His knife didn’t slip; it was purposefully wielded.
On the other hand, Debby never intended to connect with the lamp, let alone break it. Her actions were unintentional and accidental. It was a mistake. At the same time, something has been broken.
What is to be done? What do we do with these facts? This is where understanding accountability vs. blame in relationships matters.
Both children must be held accountable. They have each destroyed something. They must not only find the right way to fix the problem as best as they can, they must admit to their shortcoming.
In the case of John, he might have to sand the coffee table or work to help purchase a new one.
Debby, on the other hand has done something accidentally. If she were an adult, she would need to find a way to make it right by replacing the lamp. As a child, this is an opportunity to instruct on ways to avoid doing this in the future.
This is accountability. Now let’s look at Accountability vs. Blame in relationships.
If we ignored what was done, we would not be holding anyone accountable. We would let John and Debby think there were no consequences for their actions.
We could also blame them. We could constantly bring up that the coffee table sucks because John messed it up. Or we could say that every time everyone makes a mistake, they’re Debbying it. These are abusive tactics. That’s what blame can be.
Holding them accountable means they make it right. That requires naming it: John scratched up the coffee table; Debby broke the lamp. These are not punishments, but simply accountability facts.
What’s more, since Debby did it accidentally, this is only anecdotal information. She needs to learn to be more careful, but it was an accident.
Since John did it purposefully, we need to dig deeper. He must fix what he did and show remorse so we know he doesn’t want to do it again. (As parents we also should look deeper into why he wanted to do this in the first place and resolve the emotional problem that caused this, but that’s a bit out of our metaphor).
Blame vs. Accountability in Relationships
In short, there are three ways to respond when something bad happens:
- Ignore It: Doing nothing in response is bad. It means there is nothing to address, nothing to learn, and nothing to fix. With kids, this is a terrible lesson that also says “I don’t care enough about you to address even terrible behavior”. With peers it says “you can walk all over me, and I won’t do anything about it.”
- Blame Them: This does nothing as well. It’s an angry reaction to feel superior or in control without actually fixing the problem. In the example of the Coronavirus it simply finds a scapegoat – someone to hate – instead of figuring out how to address the problem.
- Hold them Accountable: This means you neither ignore or blame. You hold the person who did it accountable and either have them fix it in the case of purposeful damage or work with them to address it in the case of accidental damage. In both cases, you hope your actions lead toward positive future actions.
Blame just doesn’t need to be done. It has no value. That’s why we call the Coronavirus the Coronavirus. At the same time, we must hold people accountable for their actions. That’s why we called out the Russian government for meddling in our election.
It’s not about blame or anger. It’s about positive boundaries for stronger relationships.
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