Should younger children say “sorry” after doing something wrong?

My friend and fellow Dad blogger Jim Turner (aka Genuine) and I had an interesting discussion this evening over a rather extraordinarily long and delicious dinner away from the wee ones where we talked about whether children should be required to apologize if they break the rules or hurt someone. It sprang out of a relatively minor incident at Jim’s house, but we see something transpire every day with our three that might warrant an apology or two.
This isn’t as obvious as it may appear on first glance, and Linda and I have discussed this very matter more than once in the recent past too.
Obviously, you want to teach your children to be kind, polite and mind their manners, if nothing else than just to be able to survive having them in your house for so many, many years, so from that angle, yes, they need to be taught pleasant behavior like “don’t throw the broccoli at the dog during dinner!” (no further explanation needed, I bet)

But other than training them in some sort of Pavlovian way to monotonically say “yeah, whatever, I’m sorry” or similar, does it really matter if they say “sorry” or not?
Clearly insisting they “say it like you mean it!” is more of the same knee-jerk response to the situation and again, do you really care if someone’s hurt you and they say, but cleary don’t mean, an apology? Does it make your broken lamp get fixed? Your skinned elbow heal?
Having said that, it may surprise you that I believe children should apologize and Jim captured my reasoning well when he observed that it’s just politeness training. Linda, however, believes that it’s quite possible that some children are just too young and since you won’t get a genuine apology, you should just let it go if they don’t automatically say “woah, sorry!”
I’m kind of on a fence about this (but don’t tell my wife) because I have seem my children do something bad and immediately apologize with a heartfelt upset about the situation. Not always, but let’s be frank: do you always mean it when you apologize for things like accidentally bumping someone getting onto the subway?
So what do you do? Do you require 100% compliance with the “say you’re sorry” rule, do you let it go completely, or do you rather sporadically request an apology from the offending party with the perhaps naive belief that somehow they’ll learn to be nicer and more polite and pleasant in the future?

22 comments on “Should younger children say “sorry” after doing something wrong?

  1. I do have my kids apologize when they have wronged someone. Sometimes they aren’t ready to do so right away, and I can respect that, but I do require them to do it after a cooling off period and a private (not in front of the offended one) discussion about why they were in the wrong. There are times when I can tell it still isn’t exactly heartfelt, but I still feel it is the respectful thing to do, and as they get older and their sense of empathy develops more, that happens less and less.

  2. I believe a child that does anything outside the rules of the home, or anything that hurts someone or is done in anger toward someone should be held accountable for their actions. Sometimes they may not realize what they did or that they caused a hurt but our job as parents is to piont out that misdeed and show them their action and what the proper response should have been. We have a responsibility of molding them for the future.
    Some of the apologies giving will not be heartfelt but it is still the right thing to do.

  3. My daughter is 26 months old. She is consistently very good with “Please” and “Thank You”. Since she is still learning the ground rules for civilized behavior, social transgressions are a frequent occurrance. Her father and I are in the habit of explaining to her what is wrong with her behavior or her actions. We try to help her to understand why we are displeased. She will often spontaneously appologize when she hears our explanation.
    At this point, her understanding is very important to us, more important than the words “I’m Sorry” which may or may not mean anything in a given situation. Her father and I appologize on her behalf when we are unable to help her to understand why something is bad or wrong.
    At this stage, we are responsible for setting limits and teaching her appropriate behaviors. When she acts outside the bounds, her father and I are as deeply sorry as she could ever be expected to be and feel that our own appology may be more needed than hers.

  4. I believe that, while we as parents may want to see a child say sorry right away, it is the short term solution to a situation. I encourage my kids of all ages to say sorry but I also point out, more importantly, that the person’s feelings are hurt and that they may want a hug or a gentle pat or just to know that you care. I also explain to them that if they were in that situation they would want the same respect given to them. Basically, I would agree with your wife that sorry may not be hearfelt if forced. I would also agree with the above poster that apologizing for a child helps the victim feel better and is also a great model for the child.

  5. I agree with the other posters – it’s important to have a child apologize when they’ve hurt or wronged another person. Explaining why what the child did is wrong and how it can make a person feel is important. I would add that the apology needs to have the “what” they are apologizing for added in, otherwise they do get caught up in rushing through because mom or dad is making them say sorry. There is a difference between an “I’m sorry.” and going about your business and an “I’m sorry I pushed you and hurt your arm.” It makes for a break and a chance for the wronged one to forgive or let them know they are okay now. It’s never easy and there are times when the child is too young to understand but it’s still important that we as parents try to help them negotiate through the world we have placed them in rather than leaving them to figure it out for themselves.

  6. I have a son of three and a daughter who’ll be turning five soon. I also insist on them appologising when they have wronged someone else. Sometimes they appologise on their own, sometimes they have to be reminded, but I have taught them to look the person in the eye and to appologise in a gentle voice using the persons name. Many adults have difficulty in saying they’re sorry. I believe this strength of character needs to be built into us and excercised from a very young age.

  7. Great question! There’s a definite value in teaching kids to care about their effect on others, and there’s equal value in not teaching to say things they don’t mean.
    Most well-meaning people I know (myself included) tend to err on the “say you’re sorry” side, so others don’t think we’re weak or raising rude kids.
    As I’ve gotten older, and have two kids (and therefore realize that I don’t have as much to do with my kids’ personalities as I originally thought), I’m much more interested in getting my kids to appreciate the other person’s feelings and point of view. When we experience empathy, an apology follows naturally. When we’re still mad at the other person for what we perceive they’ve done to us, the apology is an empty gesture, or worse, a tactic designed to get the adult to leave us alone.
    That said, I’ve discovered that the ability to apologize easily, even for things that I haven’t done or intended, is a valuable business skill. It costs nothing, except a few ego points, and it can turn a hostile complainer into a champion customer.

  8. My kids are 2 1/2 and 4. For me it seems a little early to push saying sorry, especially for the younger one. That said, I believe that part of parenting is socializing our children to our culture’s expectations. I want to strike a balance between learning to be polite and learning to be independent and creative. I think small children benefit from the repetition of “say you’re sorry” so that they learn what is expected in a conflict situation.
    I also try to work with Non-Violent Communication, so in the case of my child hurting someone else, I might talk to the hurt child and acknowledge their pain. Then I would point out to my child the result of their actions. The goal would be for my child to learn that hurting someone is not OK and that out of the goodness of their heart they will feel sorry.
    This is definitely a long-term goal since toddlers aren’t known for much soul-searching!

  9. My daughter is 2 years old and I do not require her to “please,” “thankyou,” or “sorry” anybody.
    Sometimes I ask if she wants to say, “thankyou.” Sometimes when she asks for something without a please, I repeat her questions with the please: “Apple juice, please?” Sorry hasn’t really come up much.
    In any case, I may offer the polite words, but more importantly I say them to her and to others and I’m sure she’ll pick up the words and the feeling behind them just as she is picking up grammar without grammar lessons . . . in the meantime, I say the words for her if a third party is concerned and she doesn’t want to say it herself. Because I am sorry my daughter bumped into you.

  10. My wife and I don’t require my 2-year old daughter to apologize because we think its unreasonable to expect a 2-year old to be capable of real empathy, or to show appropriate social etiquette. When she begins to show those potentials, then we will try to encourage it, hopefully by modeling it in our own behavior as parents.
    Of course, there’s always going to be that person who is terribly offended that you didn’t force your child to apologize, but to me, this is a very bizarre individual with fantastical notions and expectations for children that have no basis in reality. I am confidant that I can explain to any reasonable person that apologizing is unnecessary, and my primary tool for doing that is Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. I’m sure many people have heard of this theory — here’s a brief overview of the basic principles:
    I think most conventional parents are really focused on achieving Kohlberg’s Stage 3 morality – Good boy/Good girl orientation. Obedience to social norms is seen as the greatest good, but I’m quite certain that most people, when they think about it, want their children to become more moral than that. But its unfortunate that parents insist on Stage 3 morality from their children at all points during their development, and I think borders on cruelty to punish a child for failing to do something they are fundamentally not capable of. But on the other side of that, many parents hold moral principles of equality, fairness, inclusiveness, pluralism, etc., and its also unfair to expect children at all ages to have this advanced moral reasoning capacity. There’s some evidence that children do not develop empathy in the complete sense that we as adults experience until around age 12, when they are capable of truly taking another person’s perspective.
    There’s some evidence that you can teach prosocial behavior prior to the development of perspective taking ability, but I am a bit concerned about “skipping” stages. Even though a young child could potentially learn how to share or how to say they are sorry by imitating their parents, perhaps it is important for them to develop an egocentric perspective so they can discover for themselves the limits of quid-pro-quo morality. As they get older, it is important that they can stand up for themselves and others, do what is right in the face of peer pressure, avoid bad situations and dangerous individuals, etc. As much as we value sharing and harmonious social relations, I think there is such a thing as excessive compliance, and maybe we are teaching that with too much emphasis on niceness. Piaget’s model of child development (on which Kohlberg based his model) suggests that stage transition occurs along these lines: equilibrium -> disequilibrium -> re-equilibrium. Perhaps it is important to view anti-social behavior not as terrible events to be disciplined out of kids and avoided at all costs, but as that second essential step of learning that all children must go through. The role of the parent, then, is to help the child use that experience to discover the next equilibrium, instead of emphasizing the highest possible morality, which may really only be available to the parent.

  11. What does it mean “your as red as a lobster and i will cook you”
    A 12 year old tells my 12 year old girl that What does it Mean?

  12. I think “your as red as a lobster and I will cook you” means your getting really high-tempered and you have steam blowing out of your ears that the parent is going to punish this child or ground him/her.
    I’m doing a report, a persuisive report on Why Kids Should Have The Ability To Try To Get A Real Job. It starts,
    Whistle While We Work
    We, kids should be able to get jobs at a younger age. Just think— having money to buy your own bed to yourself when you’re a pre-teen. Picture this, getting paid for something you enjoy.
    Us, kids need a living. You may think that going to school until High School is a living but most kids I ask would rather get money from someone else from doing a job rather than saving up your years money that you get for Christmas, I mean it’s only five dollars. I would like to get even minium wadge. We can’t just go to school, do homework, eat dinner and play a dice game with your two friends. Kids need to get out in the world to reach achievements. They need to find what they are best at. How boring is it not to go to school, walk to your business[job] and organize clothes or take orders for money while hanging out with your friends and making new ones.
    The story goes on for quit a bit but I don’t really have any ideas. My main Ideas are:
    *Us, kids need a living
    *We can’t just wait for Christmas
    *The pre-teens can do what their strenghts are.
    I really don’t have anymore ideas. In class we are working on details but I can’t do anymore detail then what I wrote. My paper is only one page long and she wants it to be two or more pages.
    If you guys can help me.

  13. one should teach a child to say sorry when they have wronged someone and only if they are really sorry for the wrong. if you force a child to say sorry when they dont mean it, that is forcing and teaching them to LIE.

  14. I have(had) a friend who’s parents never properly say “thank you” or “sorry” because he was brought up thinking thinking he is more than other peole and does not need to justify himself.
    I had to teach him to say thank you and he was surprised how much more people liked him.
    But our friendship has broken down, probably for ever, because he has diceded it to make a mater of principle that he’ll never say sorry about anything, ever.

  15. I believe that forcing a child to say sorry only causes the child to build up anger from which they are more likely to act up out of. When a child does something knowingly wrong, it is a sign that something does not feel well inside. Trying to prevent the acting out of a child by forcing them to suppress it is like removing a warning light in the car instead of fixing the underlying problem.
    If a child is feeling good inside they are likely to display that by what they do. Treating the child with respect, listening to them, and playing with them are some powerfull ways to charge them up with self esteem and loving feelings. As an adult I observe I only act sarcastic, frown, or say unloving things when I’m not feeling good inside. When I am full of love, the energy is totally different.
    In my opinion, there is no place for sorry. The child will model your behavior if they respect you. They’ll respect you only if you show them respect.

  16. At the pre-school we went to, they encouraged the children to ask, “What can I do to make you feel better” when another child was accidently or intentially wronged. I think this is better than forcing a child to say a potentially insincere sorry.
    I saw the technique in action…child A got too rowdy and accidently hurt child B who started to loudly cry. The teacher asked Child A to say, “What can I do make you feel better?” Child B responded, “You can give me a hug”. They hugged and all was better. I’ve also seen a case where the wronged child said, “nothing” but at least that’s their choice. Forcing the kids to say sorry can create a penitent environment where the wronged child is almost pleased that the other child has to apologize.

  17. great post Mike. thanks for the link.
    i also don’t think forcing children to say “sorry” is beneficial at such a young age. I believe they are incapable of understanding such concepts. i prefer to raise thinking children, not robots.

  18. after carrying my 14mth baby in a sling for most of the time during her first 9 months, she does not like sitting in a car seat. Has anyone any suggestions.. i’m not worried about it myself and trust she will do in her own time.. im happy to do short trips.. however i’m receiving much pressure and criticsm from grandparents,partner etc. any suggestions? also, any suggestions on dealing with the ‘should’s and shouldn’ts’ received from imposing grandparents!! i’m in need of some attachment parenting support! any suggested reading material?

  19. I was initially at loggerheads on this debate, but I think we should teach toddlers to say “sorry”. If not now then when? After all, we teach them to do a lot of things before they understand what it means.
    As long as we explain the reasoning behind it, I don’t see why a young child can’t learn to understand what it means to be “sorry”. In fact, I think we often underestimate just how much our children understand. I often spy my son (who is nearly two) doing a lot of things I had assumed he wouldn’t know how.

  20. Hi. This is a hot topic for me. I was about to post about this and thought I’d do a little searching on the ‘net first to see what had been covered on this topic already. I have to say, I feel disappointed, but not surprised, in what I have found. The general consensus seems to me to be that people value being “nice” more than they value being “real”, and are willing to pass this down to their children to perpetuate.
    I do not believe in this “fake it ’til you make it” mentality. I absolutely believe in modeling the behavior you want to see in your children. Being the change you want to see in the world.
    No one, parents included, is granted the power to control or manipulate or mold anyone else, including our children. Eventually, because we are all autonomous, we all make our own choices eventually, you can’t control a child forever (if at all!). In my experience and observation, the greatest influence on a child (whether to say sorry, or please and thank you, etc.) in the long run, is what they saw modeled to them over many years of growing up. There are always exceptions to every rule, of course, but I am speaking in general.
    Prompted apologies don’t teach anything of real value, at best, they teach a child how to maintain surface, shallow relationships with others, and not to go deep into true empathy or understanding of another person’s pain.
    And worst of all, being prompted to say something against your will is degrading, embarrassing, leads to resentment, withdrawal and mistrust. I want to thank Marc for his comment above, you pretty much hit what I am trying to say right on the mark.

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