Sad little siblings hugging toys on floor

Picture this: you tell your 3 year old it’s time to put away the tablet and get ready for bed. She doesn’t listen so you end up taking her tablet from her. She gets mad and hits you. It might seem like the best thing to do in this situation is tell your 3 year old it’s not okay to hit and tell her she has to apologize, right?

But what if I told you I actually wouldn’t make her apologize?

And no, it’s not because of some new wave parenting philosophy that children can do whatever they want.

It’s because I want to teach my kids how to be sorry, not just how to say sorry.

Okay hear me out…

Research1 shows that for both children and adults apologies go a long way in repairing the relationship after someone is hurt. That makes sense right? When someone does something that causes us pain, we usually feel better after an apology.

There’s two caveats to this when it comes to teaching kids to apologize:

  1. One of the cardinal rules of toddler parenting is avoid power struggles. Trying to force them to say anything is a good way to get into a power struggle.
  2. When someone apologizes to us, we want it to be heartfelt. If we can tell it’s forced or they’re just saying sorry because someone told them to, that doesn’t mean a whole lot.

Avoiding Power Struggles

Toddlers are constantly seeking control. They don’t have very much autonomy over their lives, so they look for ways to control what they can. This is good and a healthy way for them to explore and develop. But it can also be exhausting for us. Finding ways to allow them some control, such as letting them zip their jacket or letting them pick which shirt to wear, is a great way to let them flex this muscle. Getting into a situation where we are telling them to say or do something they don’t want to do will almost always backfire. Plus, it doesn’t really teach anything.

Understanding Versus Parroting

Forcing kids to say sorry, in my observation, doesn’t actually teach them what ‘sorry’ means. It becomes more about saying the word to avoid getting in trouble, rather than understanding the weight it carries. What I aim for is to help my child build and understand empathy – the basis of an apology. An apology is not about uttering a word, but understanding and feeling the remorse that the word represents, and wanting to repair the relationship. So yes, you can force your child to say sorry, but is it really teaching them anything? Is it really helping the situation?

The Development of Empathy

Now, let’s talk about empathy. The toddler phase is a critical period in a child’s life where their brains are still developing, and they’re very egocentric. It’s not that they don’t want to apologize; they might not fully understand what they’ve done. And that’s okay! The goal is not to force them to say sorry but to help them understand why they should feel sorry. By allowing them to explore these feelings, we are paving the way for them to develop empathy organically.

Learning to Repair

If I force my child to say sorry and nothing else, it teaches her that all she has to do is say the word “sorry” and she’s off the hook. But that’s not how we address mistakes in real life. Apologies are just the first step. I want to teach her how to repair when she’s hurt someone. This involves understanding the effects of her actions on the other person and taking steps to make it right.

Final Thoughts

Learning to sincerely apologize is important for kids. However, when you’re trying to help your kids develop this skill, consider if you want them to just learn how to say sorry, or if you really want to teach them how to be sorry.

What do you think about this? Do you follow a similar approach?

  1. Mulvey, K. L., Gönültaş, S., Herry, E., & Strelan, P. (2022). The role of theory of mind, group membership, and apology in intergroup forgiveness among children and adolescents. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 151(3), 613–627

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