Teaching children to say “I’m sorry”

by Ginny Trierweiler, the Born for Brilliance Parenting Coach

I was just asked today “How do I teach my child to apologize when she has done something wrong?  Why do children resist this?”

There are some really good reasons children resist “tell Suzy you’re sorry!”  After all,  no one likes to be told what to say!

If you want to help your child become considerate and compassionate and socially skilled, including having the ability to apologize sincerely when they’ve messed up, you must first understand where sincere apologies come from:

  1. Sincere apologies come from feelings of empathy— Oh, I hurt my friend’s feelingsI feel that pain– ouch!  
  2. Sincere apologies come from affiliation needs — I want to make sure my friend is okay —  and I want to make sure our relationship is okay!

Undertanding this, here are some keys for helping a child learn to apologize when they’re wrong:

  1. Model it– apologize when you are wrong!  Observing a more mature, skilled person is one of the most important ways a child learns anything.  Your child will pick up on your feelings, will recognize that apologizing is not easy for you, and will internalize the desire to become a human being with that kind of mature skill.  On the other hand, if you don’t apologize when you’re wrong, but you insist that your child does, s/he will feel that’s unfair and will engage in resistant behaviors– either refusing to apologize or doing so with obvious insincerity.
  2. Normalize mistakes in your household, rather than behaving as though mistakes are shameful.  Don’t overreact to your spills or their spills.  It seems to me that we live in a mistake-phobic culture.  In school, because it’s easier to grade, we tend to present everything in terms of “pick the right answer out of 4 options,” and we mark their mistakes in red.  As a result, children learn from a pretty early age to hide their mistakes — and this continues into adulthood.  We will live better lives and have better relationships with ourselves and others when we view mistakes as opportunities for learning.  If parents act that way on a regular basis, their children will develop a comfort with mistakes, and own up to them, rather than covering them up.
  3. Engage your child in a multi-age community where older children naturally develop compassion for younger children and younger children learn from older children. When children grow up in such communities, there is less likelihood of entitlement and more ability to develop perspective and empathy.  Remember that empathy is key to a sincere apology.  You did something wrong and someone got hurt– if you can feel the hurt of the other person, your apology is more likely to be real and sincere.  So be aware of how you’re helping your child develop empathy for another person’s feelings.  For example, when you see them take on the facial expression of someone who is sad, you can help by labeling that emotion– oh, Mary is sad right now. You know what that feels like, huh?  It’s another area we’re doing the wrong thing in our culture– we tend to separate children into same age groups.  This promotes competition and bullying and reduces the natural, typical ways that children throughout the ages have learned to care about each other.
  4. Give your children a meaningful role in their community.  For example, even toddlers can help to take care of the environment (e.g. sweeping the floor, washing the dishes, watering the plants) and participate actively in meal and snack time– and toddlers are very interested in doing all these things.  In the school I directed, very young children are given a real, meaningful role in the community, such as cutting apples and cheese for snacks and serving them to their friends.  It’s amazing what a difference this kind of real, meaningful participation in the community makes in terms of their care and consideration for each other.
  5. Teach your cultural norms for apologies.  This might sound like “oh, Suzy, we say I’m sorry when we hurt someone’s feelings.”  Can you hear how that is teaching the cultural norms– “we” do this in our culture, our family– as opposed to telling your child what to feel or say– “tell Lisa you’re sorry?”  No one likes to be told what to feel or what to say.  It offends our sense of dignity and our desire to be self-determined, so your child’s reaction is more likely to be either to offer an insincere apology or to refuse altogether.

Our job isn’t to teach children what to say or force them to say they’re sorry.  That’s putting a dynamic of coercion and disrespect into the situation which will completely distract the child from the feelings of empathy that are needed for a sincere apology.

We can really help them become good and successful people when we build a caring community, support their developing empathy, normalize mistakes, and model important social behaviors such as apologizing, so our child can see how it’s done and what a difference it makes.

What have you learned about helping your child develop the courtesy of apologizing when they’ve done something wrong? 


gt headshot pretty smile 2013I am available to speak to your parent group in the Colorado front-range community.

Get in touch!  drginnyt@gmail.com or 303-975-6103


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2 Responses to Teaching children to say “I’m sorry”

  1. Etsuko says:

    Thank you so much for the wonderful advice! I so agree on all the tips that you shared. I definitely try to be the model of saying “I’m sorry” appropriately and encourage her to have the judgement whether she is in the situation where she should apologize. Sometimes, she said I don’t want to so I don’t push her. So I’m hoping one of those days, she’ll be able to apologize genuinely. But, I have a question! Even though she doesn’t necessarily say I’m sorry for the situation that I think she should, she is quick to say I’m sorry for something that she doesn’t really need to apologize for. Is that something she’ll figure out later? or should I keep telling her that situation like that doesn’t necessarily require an apology? I can’t remember a good example right now, but it’s something like.. if I correct her for some minor mistakes, like names of colors or animals, she’ll be like “oh! I’m sorry!” or if I say, oh, you should place your toy over here.. and she says “oh! I’m sorry!” kind of like that.. Do you think she is just exploring the usage of the word, sorry that I should just let her and not correct her??
    I would appreciate your advice on this! Thank you! :0

    • admin says:

      Etsuko– you are such a thoughtful and devoted mom, I love to hear from you. I think you’re right in thinking it may not be necessary to correct Misaki in this use of “I’m sorry.” You can see how it makes sense to her to say “I’m sorry” for making a minor mistake. Let me compose another post in order to better answer your question.

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