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Toddlers and Preschoolers > How Do Kids Really Learn Responsibility? The Five Essential E's!

How Do Kids Really Learn Responsibility? The Five Essential E's!

by Foster Cline, MD and Lisa C. Greene 

How do children really learn responsibility? Love and Logic teaches us to use five easily understood, practical, and effective skill sets. We call them the Five Essential E's: Example, Experience, Empathy, Expectations, and Encouragement.

Some parents make the mistake of believing that children learn responsibility by lectures, reminders, ranting, raving or rescuing. However, the Five Essential E’s will always work better especially in critical parenting situations like raising children with special healthcare needs. 

Let's take a brief look at each of the Essential E's by using a metaphor of learning how to play a musical instrument. 

The First Essential E: Example

The first step in learning how to play it is to have someone teach you by example. In order to learn how to play the piano, you'll need someone to model how it’s done and, hopefully, to teach you the right way to do it.  Everyone plays an instrument after at least watching, if not being inspired by another. 

What happens if one is taught a bad technique in the  beginning of a musical career?  Once formed, it is difficult to break a bad habit.  If we expect our children to be basically respectful, responsible and cope well with problems, then that’s the example we must show.  We must occasionally ask ourselves, “Am I being the way I want my children to be?” 

In setting the example, it is essential that we take good care of ourselves. We can even use this as a teaching opportunity by occasionally muttering about ourselves in front of the kids: “Gees, I think I’m watching too much TV so I'd better turn it off,” or “You know, I really want that chocolate cake, but it’s just not good for me, so I guess I’m going to pass on it.” Now we are modeling taking good care of ourselves. 

Along with taking good care of ourselves, we insist our children treat us with respect when they are around us. Our message is: “Sweetheart, I love you but I won’t allow you to treat me badly.” Then, our children, modeling after us, won’t treat themselves badly, will have a high self-image, and will learn self-respect and how to set boundaries because they learned it from us.

Here’s an example of a loving parent taking good care of herself: A teen is fussing, whining and complaining about checking her blood glucose levels. The parent explores the situation, keeping in mind that all children have a right to protest with compliance until it slides into downright obnoxiousness. 

Often a little empathy will be enough to stop the whining or using an enforceable statement like: “I’m happy to listen when you can talk nicely with me about it.” But let’s say it escalates. Now a fed-up parent might say, “Just stop it!” – like that’s going to do it with a strong-willed kid. 

It’s so much more effective to set the example and take good care of yourself by lovingly saying something like: “Honey, I’m not feeling very good about the way you are behaving right now. And I can understand your frustration. But your whining about checking your glucose level is draining my energy and hassling my ear drums. Where would you like to go, sweetheart, so I won’t hear it?” 

The child learns a few things: Mom cares but won’t put up with obnoxious behavior. Mom is very lovingand firm. And, Mom is setting a great example! 

The Second Essential E: Experience

Back to the piano metaphor: what is the second step to learning how to play a piano?  Trial and error. Practice and experience!! The road to wisdom is paved with lots of mistakes.  When a mistake is made on the piano, we get discord and it generally sounds pretty bad. Life’s mistakes are also like that.  And, Love and Logic teaches us that the mistakes made early in life are far more affordable than mistakes made later in life.  

Unfortunately, wisdom only comes with trial and error if the error is accompanied by negative consequences. Although it may be unpopular to say in today’s world, the truth of the matter is that: “People have to suffer the consequences of their errors and poor choices in order to learn from them.” This means that when our children make a mistake, we respond by loving them, talking it over with them, and providing ideas about how they might get themselves out of a bad situation but we don’t rescue them unless it is absolutely essential for life and health. 

Parents who raise children without wisdom usually do it by making two common mistakes. First, they try to make sure their child doesn’t make mistakes. Secondly, when their children do make mistakes, the parents try to fix it. They do something outside the child’s skin to make it better. 

Wise parents who raise wisdom- filled children respond to the situation by putting their energy into what’s going on inside their child’s skin rather than outside. 

For many of us, , this is a difficult concept because we parents of special needs kids are normally over-protective. We must be overly protective with a sick child in the early years. But as the child grows older, it is essential for the us to back off, put less energy into making sure the environment responds correctly to our child, and spend more energy on helping our child cope with all environments. 

In other words, we must spend less energy into fixing things outside the skin and more energy into growing a child with the wisdom to handle what the environment throws at him or her. 

So, the next time you are tempted to rescue your child from their (non-life or limb threatening) bad decision, think twice. Instead of answers, give them empathy and remember that wisdom only grows through experience. 

The Third Essential E: Empathy

What would happen if our little concert pianist was struggling with learning to play the piano, making lots of mistakes and we became angry and frustrated with him or lectured or nagged?  Wouldn't our child want to quit or be upset with us and feel unsupported? Or feel like a failure?

What would happen if we reacted to mistakes with empathy instead? Would our child be encouraged, more likely to continue and try harder? Would he or she learn from the mistakes, feel supported and like us more? 

Responding with empathy is the key to building and maintaining a good relationship with our children. And our spouses, too, by the way. But it’s not easy. People have the hardest time with this one because it may not be natural! 

It’s easy to show our kids empathy when someone other than us has caused our children unhappiness. But when they are unhappy about the consequences that we’ve imposed or that occur naturally because of their misbehavior, many parents often have trouble expressing empathy. 

Instead, we might show a combination of frustration and anger when we give the consequences:

  • “You didn’t do your breathing treatment this morning, so you are not going out until it’s done!”
  • “You broke curfew last Saturday, so you’re staying home for the next two weekends!”

 It generally brings more harmony to show our children empathy over the consequences that we impose. An example might be: “Gosh, Nancy. I bet you’re going to be really upset when you can’t go out next weekend. I would be too! I hope you have as good a time as possible here at home, honey." 

It is wise for us to show empathy before delivering consequences. Real empathy. When we show empathy, rather then anger and frustration following our children's mistakes, they feel encouraged, supported, and learn from their errors. Our child’s poor choice becomes the “bad guy,” not us parents! Empathy provides love and respect even as it locks in the learning experience. 

The 4th Essential E: Expectations

It’s easy for us parents show negative expectations and not be aware of it. Properly conveying expectations is really a parental art. 

Children who have special healthcare needs must have parents who vibrate out high expectations if they are going to grow to take good care of their bodies and respond in a healthy way to their medical conditions- many of which don’t show the consequences of good or poor care for many years. 

Let’s look at common ways of showing negative expectations. We all do some of these things part of the time; the trick is not to do most of them much of the time. 

  • Giving a warning. Warnings reflect an expectation that things will go south.
  • Showing chronic worry. Worry is another indication of the expectation of a bad outcome.
  • Being pessimistic most of the time about possible results.
  • Consistently setting expectations too high. The child then feels chronic inadequacy.
  • Showing frequent disappointment without providing hope for improvement.

The problem is, all of the above work like magic in the short run but not over the long haul. Those of us who give warnings raise kids who constantly push limits in the areas of the warnings; worried parents raise worrisome kids; pessimism breeds pessimism.  

Positive expectations are shown in smiles, dreams, encouragement, and above all, hope. People gravitate to leaders, teachers and parents who vibrate out high expectations accompanied by the knowledge that the expectations are reasonable and can be met.   

Loving expectations that are reasonably set lead to achieving children. Authoritarian demands often result in self-destructive, non-compliant decisions. 

When we give our child the can-do message, we'll soon see just how much our special needs child really can do!    

The Need to Flyon page 87 of our book, Parenting Children with Health Issues, is a great example of a mother of a child with hemophilia realizing the importance of letting go so that her little boy can blossom and experience life as a participant and not just a bystander.  

The Fifth Essential E: Encouragement

When times are tough or when our children face tough times, it’s natural for everyone to feel discouraged. However, both encouragement and discouragement are contagious! When we effectively show our child encouragement, we will help our child better cope with their health issues and other special needs.

When we think of encouragement, we are generally referring to using positive language and most of us think of praise; words like “good job!” or “I’m proud of you.”  But praise and encouragement are very different. The better our parent/child relationship, the better praise works, but praise can be used to manipulate both sender and receiver. Praise is basically another person’s judgment about how good (or bad) another person is doing. If the person receiving the praise is not in the mood to be judged then praise can backfire.  

When we are accustomed to using praise, we can easily fall into the trap of false praise- that is praising our child for a mediocre or poor job in the hopes that it will make him or her feel better about the poor job because it makes us feel better.  This can lead to disrespect as the child eventually learns that mom or dad doesn’t really tell the truth. 

So, wise parents use encouragement instead of praise. When we use encouraging questions, it puts the healthcare issues and results directly on the child. Questions promote a high self-image and allow the adult to express both joy and disappointment while encouraging the child to think. So examples of encouraging questions are: 

  • “Wow! How do you manage to always remember to take your enzymes with your food?”
  • “Are you proud of the way you are working so hard to get your calories in?”
  • “I noticed that you are so creative about ways to fit those breathing treatments into your busy life. How do you come up with all those clever ideas?”

So, there you have it. The Five Essential E's: The keys to raising confident, respectful, responsible children who make good decisions and feel good about themselves from the inside out rather than the outside in.  

CLICK HERE to watch The Five E's VIDEO


Foster W. Cline, MD is a child psychiatrist and co-founder of Love and Logic®. Lisa C. Greene is a parent educator and mom of two children with cystic fibrosis. Together they have written the award-winning book “Parenting Children with Health Issues."Visit  www.ParentingChildrenWithHealthIssues.com.


Copyright by Foster Cline, MD and Lisa Greene. All rights reserved.   

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