My short answer:
- Yes, teach the behavior of saying sorry – teach when it is appropriate to apologize. Also teach that they can take actions that help to right their wrong.
- However, you can’t expect a young child to really feel sorry. As they get older, they will develop this empathy and learn to take responsibility for their actions.
- Don’t force a child to apologize. This is perceived by the child as punishment and shaming, and does nothing to teach them empathy or repair.
The long answer…
Should you force a child to apologize?
We’ve all seen times where a parent marches their child over to someone, then stands over the child saying “You need to apologize. You have to say you’re sorry, right now.”
Some will figure they should just get it over as quickly as possible, and mumble out the word “sorry” without looking at the person, and then try to escape the situation as quickly as possible. Some children feel embarrassed or awkward, stare at the ground and shuffle their feet, and get more and more anxious until forced to blurt out the word. Others get into a power struggle with their parent, inflating a small transgression into a big battle, where the parent adds additional punishments – “no dessert till you say you’re sorry” – until the child says a sarcastic ‘sorry’ through clenched teeth.
When apologies are used in this way, the child views apologies as a punishment for bad behavior.
Got that? In their view, the apology is something you’re making them do because they were bad. They’re not learning “you shouldn’t hit your friend because it hurts him and makes him sad.” They’re learning “you shouldn’t hit your friend because if your parent / teacher sees you hit them, you’ll get this punishment.”
For older kids who do understand what sorry means, forcing them to say it when they don’t mean it is also teaching them to lie.
A forced apology is unpleasant and uncomfortable for everyone involved, and this awkwardness distances the apologizer from the person they are making the apology to. It does not encourage empathy toward that person’s experience, and instead can promote resentment toward them. The person being apologized to often feels awkward as well, and moves away from the apologizer as quickly as they can.
The forced sorry can also feel like it “fixed” the situation. We hurt someone, but we said sorry so it’s resolved now, right? It implies that there’s no need to check in to see if it’s resolved, or to take any further actions to right our wrong.
Should we teach a child to apologize? What does it mean to apologize?
Of course we should teach apologies! We absolutely want to take steps in the toddler years and preschool years to teach empathy, to teach taking responsibility for our actions, and to teach the social skills that will aid them in later life. A true apology is an essential aspect of this.
A true apology is not just saying the standard words. It’s not just accepting blame for something. It’s taking responsibility for your actions, working to make amends and feeling empathy for the person you have wronged.
Here’s the thing – we can’t expect children to fully understand this when they’re toddlers or preschoolers! They are not yet capable of true empathy. We can role model empathy and working to right wrongs – the understanding will eventually follow.
Role model and teach empathy
If you want your child to learn empathy, respect and responsibility, the best way to teach that is to be a good role model of all these things in all your interactions, but especially in interactions with your child. (Note: being empathetic does NOT mean I say yes to everything to avoid making them sad, and being respectful does NOT mean I don’t set reasonable and healthy limits. We can say no with empathy and with respect.)
Development of empathy
As young as six months to one year, a child may occasionally notice distress in others and try to soothe them. But often, they are oblivious to the emotions of others.
Around 18 – 24 months, a child starts to really understand that they are a separate individual from other people and that other people can have different thoughts and feelings than they do. But being able to put themselves in someone’s shoes and see how their actions made that person feel is just more than they can understand.
At 2 – 3 years, they begin to understand simple emotions in others, such as glad, mad, sad, and scared. Around 4 or 5, they start understanding complex emotions in others. After age 6, they begin to understand what other people are thinking. (See resources below on empathy.)
So, we know it’s a while before they get the feeling side of an apology. But, we can teach the behavior long before that.
Teach the behavior at teachable moments
Starting around 1 year old, you can teach your child basic behaviors. Your child will sometimes accidentally hurt you or someone else – moments like when they bump their head into your chin when you’re bending over them. This gives you the chance to teach them. It’s easy to teach even a young toddler that “When you bump me, and I say ‘Ow’, you need to say ‘I’m sorry – are you OK?'” If they carelessly bump someone else, like moving past someone to get to the slide, say “I notice you just bumped them. Can you go back, say you’re sorry and ask if they’re OK?” If they take a toy away from someone without thinking, say “I think X was playing with that toy. Say ‘I’m sorry I took your toy. Can I play with it when you’re done?”
Note, these are all low stress moments. Your child has unintentionally (or slightly intentionally) harmed someone, and we’re asking them to notice this, and make amends. This teaches more awareness of others, which leads toward empathy.
Some preschool teachers choose to skip the ‘I’m sorry’, and go straight to the “Are you OK?” or “What can I do to help?” because those focus on empathy for the other person and moving toward a solution together.
Teaching the behavior after stressful moments
Other times, your child does intentional harm. We need to set limits on this and there need to be consequences. But the consequences for your child are about the behavior itself, and the apology is about caring for the other person. The consequences need to be separate from the apology.
I recommend: disciplining your child as appropriate to the moment, and working on the apology later. The misbehaving toddler needs immediate consequences for bad behavior. The wronged toddler needs immediate reassurance. Apologies come later.
For example, if you see A bite B:
- Get down to their level and put yourself between them to prevent further harm.
- Say to A “You just bit her. That was not OK. Biting is never OK.” [Setting limits.]
- Turn to B, establish eye contact. Say “I’m sorry he bit you. Are you OK?” [Providing reassurance, and role modeling an apology.] Once you’ve verified she’s OK,
- Turn back to A: “You and I need to take a break from playing for a few minutes till you’ve calmed down.” [Consequences.]
- Help A to calm down. Don’t talk too much here! (When a child is upset enough to bite, they are too upset to listen to you, and too upset to learn anything, especially something as sophisticated as empathy for the person they’ve just harmed.)
- Once A is calmed down, then talk to him about biting [reminder of limits] and let him know that his actions hurt the other child [focusing the attention on making amends rather than on his wrong-doing].
- I will say “Let’s go check on her together and see how she’s doing.” I get down on the same level as both kids, and I encourage him “ask her if she’s OK.” After they’ve connected, then I say “you hurt her earlier. Can you please say you’re sorry?”
- Then I help them begin to play together again before moving away. [healing the relationship]
In this scenario, the biting toddler received the immediate limit setting and consequence they needed. The child who was bit received prompt attention and reassurance. Later on, we handled the apology and moving on.
How do you resolve the situation with the other parent
Let’s be honest. Sometimes we force our child to apologize because we, as the parents, are embarrassed about our child’s behavior, and we don’t want the other family to think that we’re bad parents. How do we handle that?
In the moment after the incident, we work with the children. They need immediate responses to understand.
If we handle it well, the other parent (who has a longer attention span and memory than the children) sees that we did address the situation in a way that was supportive to everyone, set limits, and taught empathy skills. Later on, we can also talk it over with the parent, and apologize, and talk together about how we’re all just doing our best to help our kids learn.
Are reparations needed?
Sometimes an empathetic sorry is all that’s needed. But sometimes we need to take actions to make things right. (Like re-building a tower, fixing a broken toy, cleaning up a mess.) Help your child figure out what to do in these circumstances.
The power of real apologies to heal relationships
In a study, 6 and 7 year olds were paired with a researcher and asked to build towers of plastic cups. Then the adult would “accidentally” knock over the child’s tower. The adult would either apologize OR say nothing, and then leave the room. Right after the incident, the children felt bad whether or not they received an apology. Later on, though, when children were asked to give stickers to their adult partner, the ones who had received apologies were more generous – presumably indicating they had forgiven their partner.
However, if the adult apologized AND helped re-build the tower, the children felt better right after the incident and gave more stickers later. According to the researcher “actively trying to put things right can help the victim to feel better in a couple of ways. The first is the effect of undoing some of the harm by putting things right. The second effect is by showing the victim that the person who hurt them is sincere and genuinely wants to make things better between them.” (Source)
When my older kids were little (back in the 90’s!), I did not teach them to say “sorry” until they were four or five years old. I’d seen too many forced apologies, and too many times where the kid saying the word sorry was clearly not feeling the emotion of sorry. They were just doing what they had to do to complete their punishment.
When my older kids were little, if they did wrong to someone, I apologized for them, and I worked with them to correct their behavior. I only started teaching sorry when they demonstrated enough empathy that I thought they were old enough to understand it. (Probably around 4 years old.)
With child #3, when he was just learning to talk, I started teaching the behavior of “If you do something to someone and they say ‘Ow’, you need to say ‘I’m sorry. Are you OK?'” And every single time an opportunity came up, I reminded him of this behavior. He didn’t yet understand that he was responsible for hurting someone and he didn’t yet have empathy for the fact that they were in pain, because he just wasn’t old enough for his brain to be able to understand it. But, he could, and did, learn the behavior.
Over time, I saw him start to get it. He would say sorry out of habit, and then when he asked “are you OK?” he would notice that they weren’t OK, and feel empathy for them. He started to understand that their sadness was due to what he had done and he started to take responsibility for it. I feel like he ended up understanding the meaning of sorry (both taking responsibility and feeling empathy for the other) much younger than my other kids, because the behavior caused him to pay attention to those situations.
He’s now five, and often offers spontaneous apologies for any minor wrong he does to people. Sometimes when he’s really angry, the apology doesn’t come right away. That’s when I have to return to the method I describe above of: setting limits on him, reassuring the other child, and then when he’s calmed down helping him understand what he has done and working with him to make the apology. He’s still learning, because he is only 5 years old. Some days it comes easier than others, but I feel like we’re on the right path.
Read more about apologies
Learn more about empathy – how children develop it and how you can help
Learn more about emotional development