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Avoid Teaching Young Children Entitlement! 3 Ways to Build Empathy Instead

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

I looked up at 3-year-old Beverly and watched her squat down on the floor and pee on the playroom carpet. I scooped her up quickly and let her finish on the terrazzo floor in the next room. There was no time to make it all the way to the potty with her. She looked at me blankly and said, "It's OK!"

Sure, it was no big deal for me. After more than 20 years of doing child care in my home, I knew how to clean it up. I wasn't about to yell at her or force her to apologize. But it wasn't the first time I'd heard the phrase, "That's OK." or even "That's OK, Nanci, you can clean it up!" when a mess had been made by any child in that 2-4 year-old age range. Milk spills, spaghetti messes, paint on the floor, you name it!

It's pretty funny when kids say it like that. I know I didn't laugh at Beverly or make her help me clean up the potty accident but I really don't remember what I said all those years ago.

I know children. When they say things like that, they're just repeating what's been said to them. Good parents don't yell at children or punish them for small mistakes. So they often tell them, "It's OK".

That's fine and it makes perfect sense to me, but here's the other side of the coin. Good parents and kind teachers also take the time to teach children what a mistake is and that good people make mistakes sometimes. And mistakes can cause problems for other people!

Of course, blame isn't a good way to make children aware of their mistakes. But they do need to slowly learn that people have feelings and that they have responsibility for how their own actions and words affect them.

So I deal with minor mistakes in a little different way now than I did when I was a younger teacher. When a child says, "I spilled!", I say, "Oh, you made a little mistake. That could be a problem. Do you want to clean it up, or should I clean it up, or should we do it together?"

In other words, I make them think about the situation a little more carefully. That feels so much wiser than letting them quickly pass off the responsibility to me whenever a problem occurs. And you know, even very young children can usually help in some small way.

Helping makes them feel better about themselves and more likely to tell the truth in situations where they are asked to admit to a mistake.

These days I get very young children used to thinking about and deciding what to do about a problem. The responsibility doesn't always fall on the adult. After all, responsibility is a response to their ability.

I often tell young children when I think they've made a mistake and why. Since most mistakes they make are minor, I teach them what a small mistake is and talk about some ways it might be made better. And I use the word mistake when I make one, too.

By the way, most young children aren't trying to make us feel guilty about our housekeeping skills when they point something out. But we might! What they're really doing is showing us their level of skill in noticing things around them.


When 18 mo. old Amy started pointing at some of the many imperfections in my home, like a nick in the floor or a missing tile in the bathroom, and saying "Uh Oh!," It didn't bother me much at first. After the 107th time, she pointed out something so minor as a speck of dirt or a small dust ball it started to feel a little bit like she was insisting I immediately fix it for her.

I knew that wasn't true, she was just showing me her ability to notice things. That's a really good skill for scientists, carpenters, and surgeons so why make her feel bad about it? So I thought about it a bit.

Then I started responding by saying, "Oh, Oh! I see the problem. There's a piece of dirt on the floor. Should you fix it, or should I fix it, or should we just leave it alone for a while and fix it some other time?

As she grew, Amy developed a great ability to assess problems without blame. When I was in the next room, taking care of something, I heard 2-year-old Amy yell, "Nanci! I'm having a problem!

"I came in quickly to see the 18-month-old trying to grab a toy from her hands. I noticed right away that she didn't blame him for the problem and was waiting for my help, holding on to the toy without pushing the younger child away.

Here are a few concrete ways we can teach responsibility to young children without shaming or blaming.

Admit when you make a mistake and talk about how you plan to fix things. Children learn by observation and you're their favorite subject.

Teach the difference between cooperation and responsibility. Cooperation is when they listen and comply. Responsibility is when they decide to take action on their own. I often tell young children that cooperation is great and responsibility, like when they wash their hands or say thank you without being told, is even better!

Teach them first about their own feelings, then yours, and then the feelings of others. We can do this by reading stories and talking about emotions and even by creating our own stories staring none other than the children we care for.

Here's an example of one I created for a child who had trouble transitioning from home to childcare in the mornings. You can click on it here, or on the booklet itself to see the whole thing!

Parents and teachers alike can create books like these for young children and they really do help! Stick figures are fine and so is grabbing a couple of pieces of printing paper, folding them and making a book on the fly.

Something about seeing a book about themselves is really motivating for kids learning to understand feelings.

Parents and teachers can also make a book for a group of children that describes a problem in the group and talks about possible solutions. Having children think about and decide from a limited list of options really helps them especially when you talk about the character's feelings in a non-judgmental way.

Do kids you care for ever have a problem sharing? Here's a book I discovered by Richard Byrne that's a really fun read about some dinosaurs with a problem or two. The photo isn't linked to a book site because I trust that you all know a few different ways to get a book!

Thanks for stopping by and I hope this article helps you in some little way. Nanci

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood education at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in

2010. She's presented at national and state early childhood conferences. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.

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