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Conscious Accountability and Parenting

December 13, 2022

This month’s column “On Leadership” by Daryn David will be the last in the series on conscious accountability. Beginning in January 2023, this blog will focus on ways to incorporate service leadership principles into the work of academic medicine.

We’ve arrived! It’s the end of 2022, and this blog will shift gears a bit next month. Please stay tuned for pointers, tips, and profiles of a few of my colleagues who are successfully embodying a service leadership approach at the Yale School of Medicine.

People sometimes ask me how the principles of conscious accountability might prove helpful in taking care of their children.

How can we, as parents, model compassion, curiosity, and beginner’s mind when we engage with others? Similarly, how can we teach our children to be accountable not only for getting things done, but also for their behavior and approach in relationships with others?

The very first step involves bringing fresh eyes to your role as a parent.

Caught up in the daily grind, it can be easy to default to tried-and-true explanations of why interactions with our children tend to unfold a certain way. When tired, stressed, or otherwise taxed, we can default to long-standing assumptions about our children – to the detriment of everyone involved.

Here’s an example, from my own parenting: After a long day at school, my son has a penchant for refusing to take a shower or bath. He will drag his feet, tell me he is too tired, or just plain tell me no.  

After my own long day of work and parenting, I too am exhausted and just want him to get on with it. After haranguing him several times to draw the water or turn on the shower, I grow frustrated and can default to the knee-jerk assumption that he takes pleasure in always defying me anyway.

But I actually have a choice around this conclusion.

The mindsets undergirding conscious accountability - the humility to consider whether our own words were clear, compassionate curiosity when trying to understand another’s behavior, the courage to speak one’s mind and listen when someone else does the same - offer me, and all of us, an alternative script.

By slowing down and noticing that I am, in fact, making an assumption about my son’s motives, I offer myself the chance to react not out of my frustration, but out of curiosity. In the moment that has opened up, I could instead ask my son - with an open mind - why he is refusing to take a bath.

What is going on for him? What is he thinking? What is my son trying to express? The answer might prove very interesting!

When I calmly asked him a few of these questions recently, I learned that my son was actually feeling quite cold after getting out of the water. Together, we brainstormed steps he could take to stay warm after he bathes. As we continued to talk, my son and I also discussed how it is appropriate for him to not always listen to what his parents want him to do but why, in this case, it is important. Eventually, I expressed my admiration for his creativity and independent spirit as we happily reminisced about different times that he has followed the beat of his own drum.

Given the limited time and emotional bandwidth we each have as parents, it’s of course unrealistic that we would approach every one of our interactions with our children in this way. But if we can bring the conscious accountability practices of noticing, deep inquiry, and open-minded listening to a situation that really matters, we just might discover information that helps us respond in a more sensitive, in-tune way to the people in our life who matter most.

In modeling such a response, we also increase the chances that our children will also approach their end of the bargain – with us and others in their lives – with inquisitiveness, humility, respect, and an ongoing spirit of learning.

Submitted by Crista Marchesseault on December 14, 2022