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Why Empathy Is Essential For Teaching Kids Responsibility

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Inside: Teaching kids responsibility involves empathy and logical consequences, so here are several emphatic statements and what to do when you can’t think of a logical consequence

My son had a bad habit of leaving his scooter out, despite our best efforts to remind him.

I was in a hurry one morning and bumped into said scooter while backing out of the garage.

I started to get out and move it out of the way, but I decided to let my son learn from his mistake instead.

The next time he went to ride it, he noticed the frame was bent and the wheel didn’t move as freely.

“Oh, man,” I said. “You left your scooter in the way of my car so I guess I hit it when I went to the store. What would you like to do about that?”

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Affordable vs. Unaffordable Mistakes

Toddler dropping an ice cream cone is example of affordable mistakes.

As much as we may want our kids to be perfect, the truth is they will make mistakes.

And as much as we may want to correct those mistakes before they turn into big problems, kids who are allowed to learn from small mistakes early on are less likely to make tragic mistakes later on.

So what are some affordable mistakes your kids need to make?

Here is a list to get you thinking.

Decide whether each mistake is affordable or unaffordable; i.e. which mistakes you’d be fine with your children learning from and which ones you’d rather they never make.

  • Forgetting their lunch for school
  • Refusing to eat dinner
  • Chatting with strangers online
  • Wasting their allowance
  • Wasting their entire bank account
  • “Forgetting” to do their homework
  • Eating too much candy and feeling sick
  • Drinking too much alcohol and driving drunk
  • Leaving their room a mess
  • Making a mess at a friend’s house
  • Leaving their bike out so it gets run over by a car
  • Leaving their car unlocked so it gets stolen

The affordable and unaffordable mistakes you’re willing to let your children make will be different for everyone, but the point is that children who are allowed to learn from their mistakes when they’re young will surely save themselves from tragic mistakes in the future.

So how do we help our kids learn from their mistakes?

The key is empathy.

The Power of Empathy

Mom is teaching kids responsibility on their couch.

The truth is, your relationship is with your child is so important when it comes to discipline and giving consequences.

You wouldn’t belittle and get angry with someone who you really respect when they made a mistake, would you?

Can you imagine marching into your boss’ office, wagging your finger, and calling them names for making a mistake on a spreadsheet?

But that’s exactly how we react to our children sometimes when they make mistakes.

The most effective parents understand the importance of displaying love and understanding before holding their children accountable for their actions.

So how do we do that?

Just like the one-liner that neutralizes arguing, the emphatic statement conveys our love to our children before we deliver the consequence.

To be effective, it must be said before laying out the consequence.

Here are some examples for you to start implementing:

  • This is so sad.
  • What a bummer.
  • How sad.
  • Oh man.
  • Dang.
  • This stinks.
  • Oh, that’s never good.
  • Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Pick a statement you can say genuinely and without anger or sarcasm and practice it for several days until it becomes natural. 

Empathy allows your child’s poor decision to remain the bad guy while allowing you to remain the good guy. This way, we can discipline our children without losing their love.

Soon your empathy statement will become a trigger for a listening mind because they know what follows is a consequence for their behavior. Say your statement with a grin and a whisper.

Empathy also allows your child to develop a voice in their head that asks. “I wonder how my next choice will affect me?”


Here are a few examples of those empathetic statements in action:

  • This is so sad. You left your bike in the middle of the driveway and I ran over it with the van. You can either try to fix it or you’ll need to come up with the money for a new one.
  • Oh, man. I had to clean up your breakfast mess this morning. The sad thing is that the time I spent cleaning up was the time I set aside to take you to the park. I’ll be happy to take you tomorrow if you can remember to clean up after yourself.
  • It must have been really scary when you ran into that other car. I love you and I want you to be driving as soon as possible. Just as soon as you’ve paid for the damage you’ll be back on the road.

Remember, empathy must come before the consequence or bad news, not after.

Logical ConsequencesParent disciplines child with logical consequences.

The key to helping our kids learn from their mistakes is empathy, as well as logical consequences.

Because this is how the real world works.

If we’re late to work, we may get a reprimand from our boss.

Three late days in a row and we could lose our job.

Or if we fail to make the payment for our electricity on time, it gets shut off.

Therefore, telling our child they have to miss a birthday party because they didn’t pick up their toys may not make the most sense in their mind.

It’s easy for us to attach that consequence because we know it’s something the child is looking forward to and will really make them feel bad about what they did.

But it’s not always logical.


Here are a few examples of logical consequences to get you thinking:

  • A child doesn’t pick up their toys, so they lose their toys until they earn them back.
  • A teen doesn’t get up in time to take the bus, so they have to walk to school or reimburse their mom for gas.
  • A child doesn’t want to eat dinner, so they don’t get anything else to eat until breakfast the next morning.
  • A child doesn’t tell his mom when he’s gone to a friend’s house to play, so he loses the privilege of playing with friends for two days.
  • A teen totals their car, so they must earn the money for a replacement.
  • A toddler throws her food on the ground, so she has to help mom clean it up.
  • A child doesn’t want to go to bed, so they have to help clean the house instead of sleeping.

But what should you do when you can’t think of a logical consequence because you’re too angry to think straight or you can’t come up with something on the spot?

You delay the consequence.

You can use these phrases in the moment:

“I’m going to have to do something about this but not now. I need to think for a little.”
“No problem. I love you too much to fight about this. I’ll take care of this later.”

It’s far better to take a break from a tense situation to get a clear mind and some empathy than it is to have a consequence ready right on the spot.

Just think of the behavior you’ll be modeling for your children: When things are tough, sometimes it’s better to walk away and cool off before revisiting the problem.

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Finishing the Story

Damaged scooter on front porch.

Do you remember my son and his scooter?

I said my emphatic statement and then asked what he would like to do

He decided to help me try and fix it.

He can ride it now, but it’s not like it used to be.

Needless to say, he doesn’t leave his scooter out anymore.

Teaching Kids Responsibility Wrap-Up

I shared a lot of info in this post, so here’s a quick summary:

Affordable vs. Unaffordable Mistakes

  • Kids who are allowed to learn from small mistakes early on are less likely to make tragic mistakes later on.
  • The key to helping our kids learn from their mistakes is empathy.

The Power of Empathy

  • The most effective parents understand the importance of displaying love and understanding before holding their children accountable for their actions.
  • Practice your emphatic statement so it becomes natural and your children learn to listen and think about their choices.
  • Empathy must come before the consequence or bad news, not after.

Logical Consequences

  • Logical consequences are just as important as empathy in helping our children learn.
  • If the logical consequence isn’t clear in the moment, delay it until you’ve had a chance to think.

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Your Turn

Which emphatic statement seems most natural for you? Do you need help finding a logical consequence?

Let me know in the comments!

The content for this post came from a parenting course I took based on Love and Logic®.

You can find an in-person course here, if you’re local to Utah.

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A Pinterest image with text and a mom sitting on a couch smiling at her 3 kids.