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Should We Teach Young Children To Say They Are Sorry?

Should We Teach Young Children To Say They Are Sorry?

We had a discussion this week about forced apologies on the forum.

Forum member Youretoolound asked the question: “What do you think about a forced apology?” By forced, I mean something like “you can’t go play until you say you’re sorry”.

I care for children ages birth to five. I don’t think the concept of remorse can really be understood until they are well into their fours and fives. I don’t ask kids to say they are sorry because I don’t think they really get what they are saying. I think you could say any two words after they have had a consequence for an indiscretion and it would mean the same to them.


I didn’t expect this of my son when he was under five and when he went to school he learned that this was expected of him for any misdeed he did on the playground. It didn’t take him long to try to use “I’m sorry” as a way to get out of a consequence here at home.

We went through months of him repeatedly saying in the middle of a conflict “but I SAID I’m sorry”. He was using it as an end game for his troubles and obviously didn’t really know the meaning of remorse even at five. He thought saying “I’m sorry” should be consequence enough because that’s what ended his troubles at school. He still tries that one now and then and he’s ten.

Though the years I have had two to five year olds who get used to saying “I’m sorry” expecting  that would be the end of their troubles. They say “I’m sorry” really quickly after they have done something wrong because they have learned it gets them back to what they want to do quickly.  If you don’t accept “I’m sorry” as the end game then the child is lost because they are used to the quick forgiveness that happens everywhere else. Their misdeed turns into protests of “why aren’t you accepting my sorry?” instead of a focus on what they have done in the first place.

I’ve also seen many children use the adults demand for “I’m sorry” as a way to take hold of a situation and regain control by withholding those two words. I’ve seen many kids tantrum in the middle of the parents expectation and just outright refuse to say it even if they have already said the phrase a hundred times before.  If the parent expects the child to apologize after getting a bad report it can postpone a child leaving at the end of the day and cause a lot of drama at the departure door.

Another reason I don’t use that technique is I don’t like to create any chaos around an already chaotic situation. I don’t like to stack additional layers onto whatever they have already done. I don’t want to expect the child to go to the person who is wronged and have to do something when the focus needs to be on only on what they have done.

It can also be very counterproductive when the child doesn’t really want to be told no or redirected.  Asking them to say the words “I’m sorry” when they still want to do what they were doing before can confuse the meaning of an apology.

If you want to make an impact to prevent the occurrence from happening again, it is best to stay on the one topic. Start with “I don’t like that”, give the consequence, and end with “you are not to do that again” with a well toned “Stink Eye” look. Keeping all of the child’s attention and energy into these simple steps will make a much more lasting impression than muddying it up with more to say or do.

Some of the participants in our discussion felt that saying “I’m sorry” is just good manners and should be taught at soon as they can speak the words. They also feel that if a another child is wronged they deserve an apology.

I understand wanting them to have good manners but I don’t like the idea of asking them to mechanically say something that they can’t possibly get. I know we teach kids how to behave and be polite by teaching them the time and place to say things but in this case I think that needs to be done when they are developmentally ready to understand their words.

If you want to see a collection of situations where young children are expected to spout “I’m sorry” after a consequence and how wholly unsuccessful the technique is, watch Supernanny shows. Jo Frost uses this in her time out techniques as the last thing done with a child after they have finished their time out.

Before they even get to time out you will see child after child protesting that they have said they are sorry and fighting the parents to not do the time out because they already SAID they are sorry.

If you look at the kids who are being forced to say it after the time out you will see the nonverbal behavior of kids who are doing it only because they are being told to do it. Very often they are looking around, looking down, or saying it in fake voice or really softly with mumbled words. You also see a number of these kids who say it in a tone of frustration and sometimes anger because this is the first opportunity to regain the power and control they had when they committed the act in that got them into time out.

In the end it just doesn’t work. Once the child is into the fours then you can start talking to them about remorse. It’s best to talk to them about feeling empathetically about what they have done or how other people are affected  at a time when things are calm. You can start to have the “how would you feel if you were the one who had the toy stolen from them?” at a time when it’s not an issue.

It’s best to do these kinds of conversations long after the consequence and when the child is doing something they like doing. They are more receptive to learning about how others feel when they are in a happy mood or in an activity where they can play and talk at the same time.  I use our daily walk as a time to bring discussions like this up so all the kids can hear it and participate in the conversation.

You can get them to start thinking about how their actions affect other people when you are in happier and less stressful moment.  If you use a sweet and concerned tone with them to bring these things up they are all ears. Once they are old enough to really begin to think universally they can start to have discussions like this and show you what parts of remorse they are beginning to comprehend.


  1. StrictMom04-28-11

    I’ve made my own children apologize for misdeeds. I think its part of training them. No, they don’t understand and 1 or 2 what it means but eventually they will get it. I have a 15 yr old, 11 yr old, 5 yr old, and 10 mth old. I love when my children come back to me after a scolding or talking too, and say on their own, “I’m sorry” I know they mean it, have had time to think over what they did. It makes me realize I’ve raised empathetic children. I think saying sorry and talking about why its important should start early. I never demanded it though with a consequence, I asked them if they were sorry, and then told them they should say it.

    • admin04-28-11

      @ StrictMom
      Empathy is a sign of intelligence. ;>

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