A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


It was an accident.

On that one point everyone involved in the incident was in total agreement. Even 9-year- old Jon acknowledged through his tears that the black eye his big sister Elizabeth had given him was an accident.

And that she should do at least 75 years of hard time for it.

Elizabeth acknowledged that she had, indeed, launched the cooler into Jon's face, and that she had done so while the two were arguing over control of the cooler. But she hadn't intended damage. Indeed, she said she was "just kidding" which, according to contemporary teen usage, automatically excuses everything from a good-natured ribbing to nuclear holocaust ("I just wiped out London with a 50 megaton bomb, but it's OK I was just kidding").

Big sister Andrea, who was driving the van at the time of the incident, saw the whole thing (which is sort of frightening, when you stop and think about it). She agreed that the bashing was accidental. In fact, she said that Jon was as much to blame for it as was Elizabeth.

"They were both pulling on that thing -- I'm not exactly sure why,"

Andrea said. "I told them to stop, and Elizabeth sort of shoved it toward Jon just as he gave it one last hard pull, and it sort of flew up in his face. Do you like my new shirt? It's so pretty and shiny! Pretty, pretty! Shiny, shiny!"

Uh, did I mention that Andrea is blonde?

So clearly, what we had here was an accidental black eye. But it was still a black eye, administered to one of my children BY one of my children. As a parent, that's a tough place to be. You want swift, severe punishment for whoever harmed your child unless the harmer was also your child, in which case you're sort of split between loyalty to harmer and harmee.

So I did the only thing I could do in the situation: I grounded them both.

To this day, I'm not sure if my wife, Anita, completely agreed with my decision. But to her credit, she backed it once it was made.

"Here's the deal," she said to two pouty-faced kids who both felt they were being unduly punished. "We all agree that this was an accident. But sometimes in life there are consequences that we have to face for mistakes we make accidentally. That's part of being a responsible person. We take responsibility for our actions even accidental ones. The fact is, Jon has a black eye, and somebody has to take responsibility for that. And since it sounds like you both contributed to the accident, we're going to hold you both responsible for it."

And here I thought I was grounding them both because I was mad at both of them. I didn't realize I was being so wise. But the more Anita talked, the more I realized how important it is to teach our children accountability. They live in a world in which finger-pointing is rampant, and passing the buck is a national pastime. How much simpler and more pleasant life would be for all of us if everyone was willing to accept responsibility for their own decisions for good or for ill and be accountable for their actions.

Accidental or otherwise.

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--- © Joseph Walker


Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through and