Excuses Versus Explanations: How To Handle Them Both…

Posted: July 18, 2012 in For Educators, For Parents and Guardians, For Teenagers
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We haven’t heard them all, because humans have an infinite number of them… and the ones kids make are usually the best.  No matter how absurd, shocking, irritating or funny they are, they do serve purposes.

“My alarm clock didn’t go off.  My teacher’s a racist.  I had a long day. My parents were fighting all night long and fight all the time.  My friend got shot this weekend.  I had to take care of my little sister.  I sprained my ankle.  It was raining, I stubbed my toe, I sneezed 5 times in a row, my head hurts, my ears ache, the President of the United States is black, I’m white, you’re fat, I’m Hispanic or my family’s poor”.

I often ask my kids if they know the difference between a reason and an excuse (usually just after they made an excuse), and 9 times out of 10, they pause, smile a sheepish grin and get my point.  It’s very easy for young people to confuse legitimate reasons and excuses or justifications.  Even the above list of excuses challenges us to think about what’s legitimate, and what’s an excuse.  For example, if one of our students lost a grandparent recently, does this justify getting failing grades all year long?

Our reactions to their “explanations” can be very subjective.  When our kids come to us with their “explanations”, it’s our job to assess the validity of their claim, whether or not their claim actually justifies their behavior, or whether or not we’re going to accept their “explanation” and how long we’re going to accept it.  Remaining mindful of our own emotional reactions to their “explanations” or circumstances is crucial in making the decision that is best for the kid.  Sometimes we’re just too tired to call them on their lame excuses and challenge them, and sometimes we just feel so sorry for them that we make allowances for them as a gesture of our sympathy.  Either way, we need to be mindful of the reasons behind our decisions and try as hard as possible to make the decision that teaches them the most.

Challenging our kids (as well as ourselves) to think about the difference between reasons and excuses compels them to move closer to the “adult” behavior of taking responsibility and away from the juvenile behavior of blaming outside forces.

Excuses are designed to justify behavior.  We make them for ourselves, and we listen to others make them.  It’s rare to meet someone who never makes excuses and takes full and complete responsibility for every decision they make.  For our kids, excuses are often their first and last resort.  But for us, the adults in their lives, the 2 most damaging things we can do to our kids development are 1) make excuses for our own misbehavior, mistakes or lack of effort, and 2) make excuses for our kids misbehavior, mistakes or lack of effort.

When we accept or make excuses for our kids, we’re essentially lowering expectations of them.  We’re delivering the very powerful message that we do not have faith in our kids to do right, even when circumstances are difficult.  Lowering expectations of our kids is a trend that society as a whole seems to be following.  We use race, gender, neighborhood, family dynamics, sexual orientation, family income or any other differentiating detail to “explain” a young persons behavior or performance… and this does nothing but inhibit our kids’ growth and diminish their fortitude and effort.

Obviously, there are forces that make things easier or harder for certain kids.  But there is a huge difference between harder… and impossible.  Kids that grow up in neighborhoods where violence is “normal”, may have a harder time focusing on their futures… but it is not impossible and they are just as capable.  Kids who belong to a demographic that statistically shows lower average academic performance doesn’t mean they lack the ability to perform as well as the demographic that shows higher average academic performance levels, it just means they need the right support… and to be challenged thoughtfully.

When our kids have real factors working against them, it simply means that the adults in their lives have to work harder to get them to rise above the built in excuses or “explanations”.  The hard part for many adults is finding a way to both validate the challenges they face AND hold them accountable for their effort, behaviors and performance.  And for anyone who doubts whether this can be done… it can.  We simply have to give our kids the time, the support and the space they need to deal with their harsher, more unfortunate or challenging realities… and then we have to stop pitying them and stop them from pitying themselves… and then we have to take them by the hand, move on and get back to work.

As soon as our kids hear from the adults in their lives that less is good enough, they’re going to achieve less.  As teachers and parents, we can deliver this message in many ways. The most common ways we send the messages that less is enough is when we lower standards and expectations or when we make things easier on our kids despite their obvious capacities to do more.   But this is not what’s best for our kids.  It may be what alleviates our guilt or gets our kids to like us or love us more… but it will not prepare them for independence.

DESPITE their circumstances and WITH  the heavy baggage that many of our kids carry, they need to continue to work and perform.  They need the adults in their lives to role model courage and how to endure and overcome challenge, and they need us to partner with them until they develop their own momentum.

This is not to say that we ignore our kids’ struggles and just rush them forward. In fact, our kids need time to make their excuses, whine, complain and talk about the obstacles they’re facing.  They deserve opportunities to cry about the hard stuff they’ve been through and the pains they carry with them every day.  But they can not have endless opportunities.  As the adults, we have to separate the times we listen and validate from the times we challenge them to work and push through.  Kids need from the adults in their lives the structure that teaches them that there’s a time to sit and feel and mourn and grieve… and there’s the time to step ahead, even with heavy hearts or uncertainty.

Making excuses can become habitual… we all know this.  And lowering expectations can be very sneaky and there are countless ways we can justify accepting less from our kids (as well as ourselves).  But just like with every other worthwhile cause, with a little self-awareness, transparency, accountability and effort, we can get better at seeing through our kids excuses, validating them AND holding them accountable, and making sure we’re doing everything we can to help them become the best versions of themselves they can be.


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