Broken Windows Parenting


“It was an accident!”

My son’s explanation was the same as millions of others little boys throughout history who found themselves in trouble. On this day and in my son’s case the explanation was true.

He was playing across the street in the neighbor’s yard. His friend had a new boomerang which he had eagerly shown to our 6-year-old son. Like any self-respecting little boy, he threw it, hard. He and his friend watched as it flew in a graceful arc, spinning majestically through the air until it came to a sudden stop against the window of the neighbor’s garage. The boomerang remained in one piece, the window did not.

“It was an accident!” my son repeated his defense, obviously fearful of my paternal wrath. To his surprise, I was not angry.

“I know it was an accident, and you are not in trouble,” I said. I saw the fear begin to leave his eyes, slowly being replaced by hope. “You are not in trouble, but the window is still your responsibility. You are going to have to pay for the window.” The hope faded.

“But I don’t have hardly any money!” he replied.

“How much do you have?” I asked

“Seven dollars”

“Okay, you can give me the seven dollars and I will pay for the rest.”

“But it was an accident!”

“I know it was an accident. But the window is broken and it has to be fixed, and that costs money. Someone has to pay for it, and because you broke it, you have to pay for it. Even though it was an accident, you are still responsible.”

My son was unconvinced but obedient. We went home and gathered all of his change and took it back across the street. The neighbor reluctantly accepted our payment. He felt badly for my son and quietly told me that we did not need to pay. I told him that we had to, because my son needed to learn the meaning of responsibility.

I thought of this story this last week when my dog was attacked by another dog. The dog’s owner offered the same defense as my 6-year old had proclaiming, “It was an accident!” It was obvious that to him the lack of intention absolved him of any obligation to remedy the situation. Because it was “an accident” he owed me nothing.

It was clear to me that his father had not taught him the meaning of responsibility (or the he had had failed to learn the lesson when his father tried to teach it). He truly believed in his "accident defense.”

He is not alone in this belief. It is clearly shared by the person who did not leave a note when he dented by car 6 months ago and by the vast majority of people who bounce checks in my office. Most people do not think of the consequences of their actions or the impact on others. Their primary goal is to avoid responsibility.

What can be done? How do we get people to accept responsibility for their actions?

I do not know how I can get other adults to take responsibility for what they do, but I do now how to get future adults to take responsibility for their actions.

One window at a time.

  • Bart

Boomerangs, Broken Windows and Responsibility

Australians lie. There is no purpose or task for which a boomerang is needed or helpful. From my experience they are nothing more than devices of destruction and mayhem. No matter how many times one reads "the instructions" they never come back when you throw them. Even if they did no finger-loving human would want to catch one in flight. The only possible use of boomerangs is as a tool for lessons in personal responsibility. 

Case in point: When my son was about 7 years old one of the boys in the neighborhood had a boomerang. Nate was playing at their house and asked if he could throw it. He had a pretty strong arm for a little boy and he gave it quite a heave. It was traveling pretty fast when it struck the window of their garage. It is basic law of physics that when an irresistible force strikes an immovable object that the boomerang wins. There was glass everywhere. It was time to buy a new window.

I was across the street when it happened and hurried over to survey the damage. I told the neighbor that we would pay for the window. He initially refused but I insisted. I turned to my son and asked him how much money he had in his piggy bank. "Nine dollars" was his hesitant reply. I told him he would be contributing that amount to the repair of the window and tears welled up in his little eyes, "But it was an accident!" 

I explained that even when we accidentally break something or do harm, something is still harmed or broken and someone will need to fix it. The window had to be replaced, that would cost money, and because the damage came from him he was responsible to for it.  We have to take responsibility for the consequences of our own actions even when they are unintentional. This wasn't punishment, it was just the way life worked. We went home and retrieved his life savings and I added the remainder. The neighbor graciously did the repair himself. 

Reflecting back on the story I am reminded that personal responsibility is a lost value. People are often quick to apologize but very slow to make amends. It seems no one wants to be held accountable for their mistakes. I see this all the time. Just this week we received a bill from a medical office. We were surprised because we had been asked to "pay in full" at the time of service had done so. The collections agent explained that they had made a mistake and "forgotten" to charge us for a portion of the services. My response that "payment in full" typically means you have "paid in full" and that we should therefore not have to pay for their mistake fell on deaf and uncaring ears. 

I have made similar billing mistakes in my practice but my worldview is different from that of the other medical office. In every circumstance I bear the expense of our mistakes. Both me and my son can attest that accepting responsibility is costly. Apologies are not. Here's hoping for a resurgence of responsibility in the world.

- Bart

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