elevating child care

You’ll Be Sorry – Children and Apologies

Parenting can be a humbling and embarrassing experience, especially when we find ourselves at the mercy of our children’s guilelessness. Young children say and do what they feel. While this instinct is endearing, even admirable, it can also be a bit awkward in the moment when, for example, our daughter spots a topless man in the market and shouts, “He’s so hairy!” (Of course, he may have deserved that, and we do hope he’ll wear a shirt next time.)

The most dreaded embarrassment parents face is when their child, purposely or accidentally, hurts another child. Naturally, we are mortified, and our children pick up on our intense dismay before they even have the chance to feel their own response. Then we become desperate for our child to say, “I’m sorry.” We rely on those two words to resolve the situation and help us save face with the other parent.

But our child is bewildered. How did moving that boy out of the way make him fall?

Children do not instantly absorb a situation or respond automatically as adults do. They take a little longer to digest an experience and process it. A child might be just beginning to put together what has happened, when suddenly she is enveloped in enormous pressure emanating from her mom or dad. “Tell the boy you’re sorry,” they say in a tone that makes the girl most uncomfortable. She wants to please, but forcing the words would feel completely false, and faking emotion does not come naturally to a child. It is learned.

Over the years I have heard many of these forced apologies. I understand the parent’s need for them, but I have to admit they always make me squirm. To truly apologize requires empathy, and empathy develops in its own way and time, at a different pace for each child. So, often the child is not developmentally ready to understand, much less own the words she’s saying.

What worries me most is the child who, because his caregiver has pushed him to always say ‘sorry,’ receives the message that apologizing fixes everything. He punches another child, but as long as he says, “I’m sorry,“ he’s excused and can move on, or even do it again. We are wrong to believe we teach empathy by forcing an insincere apology.

So, what do we do when our child hurts someone?

If a child has a tendency to act out with other children when he is tired or frustrated, it’s best to be close by to intervene before another child is hurt. We might say firmly, “I won’t let you hit,“ then create a physical boundary between the children with our hand. Or we may have to restrain our child to stop him. If we are too late and a child is hurt, we should apologize profusely to the injured child and his parents and then probably remove our child immediately from the situation – it’s time to go home. Generally, when young children deliberately act aggressively, they are signaling that they feel ‘out of control’ and need intervention. They cannot be expected to turn on a dime, compose themselves and express regret.

If our child is old enough to understand apologies and hurts another by accident, it is still best not to direct the child to respond. Better to acknowledge the situation, wait, and then model the behavior we want our child to emulate, as the mother did in this example from my Comments section:

…I went to the little boy, and his mom said he just had stitches removed where he got kicked. I said to him, “Ouch, I’m sorry that Hope dropped her shoe on your scar. I can understand that is a super sensitive spot. ” Meanwhile, he is showing me the spot and I say that “I see it”. My daughter dries her tears and walks over to him and finally says her honest, quiet and beautiful “I’m sorry”.

In some instances, there are better ways to make amends than apologizing, and when trusted to respond naturally, children will come up with these sincere gestures on their own. The boy who pats his opponent on the back when they collide on the soccer field, the toddler who offers a toy to a crying child, and the daughter who reaches for a towel to wipe up the spilled juice are all acting out of authentic empathy.

If we want our child to express an honest apology, we must be patient and not push. ‘Hi’, ‘goodbye’, ‘share!’ and ‘thank you’ are all loaded words for toddlers when parents demand them, but ‘I’m sorry’ takes the cake when it comes to parental expectations. Since our goal is for our child to make amends for his misdeeds because he genuinely regrets them, we must trust him to find the words in time.

We are powerful examples for our children of all that is human. We teach “I’m sorry” best by modeling it. Children need to hear us apologize to others, and also to them. They need to know that human beings are not perfect. When we say to our child, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” we give the child permission to make mistakes too.

While we are modeling apologies, our children will teach us again and again about forgiveness. Implicitly understanding the errors of their peers, children usually forgive immediately and return to playing together. We must grant our children that same compassion. By trusting our children to develop authentic social responses, we give them the self-confidence to be the sensitive and deeply caring human beings we hope they will become.

“Respect the child. Be not too much his parent, but also his pupil…” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

For more about children and social learning, please check out my books:
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.

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60 Responses to “You’ll Be Sorry – Children and Apologies”

  1. avatar Ed Stagg says:

    Wonderful article Janet, and I am a steadfast believer that a child, of any age, must understand his or her transgressions before he or she can take responsibility for them. Many years ago when my son was about twelve or so, four of us were walking back to my house after having pizza. Along with he and I, was my girlfriend and her four year old girl. I put my son in charge of caring for the little girl during the walk back. When the little girl made an abrupt gesture toward the street, I jumped in and grabbed her. My son wasn’t happy that I took over, but I explained to him that the little girl depended on him to keep her safe, and his hesitation risked her safety. After some dialogue he understood, and I don’t regret having put him in charge. Today at twenty-four, he is incredible with watching out for others, young or old. He has developed and continuing to develop his sense of awareness and foresight. All too often as you point out, we take for granted children should have our knowledge, but they don’t. It is up to us, the parents and other role models to “teach” not just expect.

    If I thought I could make it happen, I would love to send a young mother to you for education. Perhaps sometime in future, but I think she would take away a fresh understanding of parenting. I think your opinions, style and delivery are exceptional, as I’m sure all your students agree.

    Wishing you well and continued success,

  2. avatar Joanna says:

    This is a really great article. Your advice about dealing with a child who hurts another sounds wonderfully sympathetic to all concerned. I received similar advice when my son was pushing kids around and it was extremely effective – he doesn’t do it at all now.

    • avatar janet says:

      joanna and Ed, thank you both for your thoughtful comments! And Ed, thank you for sharing your lovely story…and for your wonderful support!

  3. avatar gary myrick says:

    i love this.g

  4. avatar Barbara says:

    I squirm, too, upon witnessing a forced apology, Janet. Somehow that distorts the meaning of ‘apology’ to the child.

    So many mitigating factors as to how to teach a child the concept of apology – with the child’s age being primary. What a parent models for a 3-yr-old is not best for a 6-year-old.

    • avatar janet says:

      Barbara, I would love to hear more of your thoughts about modeling apologies in an age appropriate way.

  5. avatar kimberly K says:

    since i work in a class setting i work on teaching empathy by comforting the injuried party and by having the child who did the hurting listen to us talk about how it felt and pointing out the tears and sad face, it seems to be working i do have an empathic little group in our room. i have had people come into the room who have attempted to force an “I’m sorry” but see do not see it serving any purpose when the child isn’t really sorry that it hurt the other child because they had “their” bike. i do model an “i am sorry” when it is an accidental incident.

    • avatar Katy says:

      Kimberly, great advice! I work in a group setting as well, and I explain to the children that when we hurt someone (accidental or not), it is our responsibility to try to make them feel better. So I encourage the child involved to ask the injured child, “What can I do to make you feel better?” Sometimes the injured child will request a hug, a soft touch, or may even just want to be left alone. We never force an apology, but often times the children will spontaneously offer up an “I’m sorry” as a genuine show of regret or an attempt to make the other child feel better.

  6. avatar Dr. Heather says:

    Lovely. Thanks!

  7. avatar Allison says:

    I just found your website and I love it! I love your incredibly balanced approach and the reminders that our kids are people too, that that they have opinions need to be treated as such!

    I have a question along these lines, and perhaps you’ve already covered it in another place (I’m sorry if you have!). What about thanking people for things? You know the prompt “what do you say?”. Is this kind of prompting OK? My wife and I are gracious and thankful people, so I’m not concerned about our ability to role model this kind of behaviour for our kids.

    I’ve noticed that kids often WON’T say thank you, because they don’t think of it, and often need to be prompted. I was prompted *a lot* as a kid, and I think it made me stop and think about why I was saying “thank you”.

    I’m curious of your opinion on this! Thanks!

  8. Beautiful, Janet- thank you.

  9. avatar Matt says:

    I use the Responsive Classroom model in my kindergarten classroom and something I use very effectively is called an Apology of Action.
    Here’s how it works in a nutshell. Saying “I’m sorry” is just the start. It really isn’t enough. You have to DO something to SHOW you are sorry. Say something mean – do something nice – draw a picture, offer to play a game, etc. Break my Legos – help me fix them. You get the idea. The apology STARTS with saying “I’m sorry” but ends with the offender fixing it. :)

    • avatar Karen says:

      I am curious what happens if the child isn’t sorry. Normally, I don’t push apologies but one day I was caught out and felt embarrassed so I pushed. My 4 year old looked at me bewildered and said, “But I am NOT sorry.” She wasn’t. She had not developed empathy to show the “proper” response in that situation. I thought she had a valid point.

      • avatar janet says:

        Karen, I’d like to know more about what happened. Do you think it was really a lack of empathy or just a different perception of the situation?

  10. avatar Npamz says:

    Thank you for this fantastic post and strategies on how to help our babes (mine at least) reach an understanding of an apology that is indeed honest and authentic and not forced. Appreciate the tools to help on this journey…..to enable my babes to be the best they can be with the strategies on board :)

  11. avatar Emily M says:

    Loved this post. I agree 100%. I was wondering what your advice would be on how to react if it is your child the other parent is forcing their child to apologize to. (i.e. the victim of a shove or toddler hit).

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Emily! I’d take your cues from your child’s reaction, which might mean comforting your child or just acknowledging the situation… Then, during the “apology”, I’d just stay quiet and allow your child to absorb the situation. Maybe reflect about it later when you are alone together. Children sense falseness a mile away, so I wouldn’t worry about your child being influenced by that.

  12. avatar Vanessa says:

    Am I the only one that strongly disagrees? Admittedly, my child is still too young for apologies (13 mos old), but he has been deliberately hit (with a glass bottle on his head!) by an older child who was not forced to apologize by his parents and I was absolutely horrified! I’m sorry, but children are children – it is our responsibility to teach them, not to simply “model” behavior and hope they discover things for themselves (as important as being a good role model is!) As an attachment parent myself, I understand wanting a gentle approach to parenting, but I honestly think this is a step too far. I certainly don’t want undisciplined children with no manners playing with (and hitting) my child with no consequences whatsoever. It frightens me that this is the new trend in parenting.

    • avatar janet says:

      Vanessa, that sounds horrible… and unusual. There are obviously some serious issues going on there. Would a forced, insincere apology have made you or your child feel better?

      “it is our responsibility to teach them, not to simply “model” behavior and hope they discover things for themselves (as important as being a good role model is!)”

      We can certainly teach children to mimic our responses, but the only way we can teach true empathy, compassion and regret is through modeling…and trust in the innate goodness of our children. The child who hit your baby is not being respected and trusted, I can assure you. If you have other ideas about how to teach children these things, I’m totally open to hearing them!

    • avatar Lydia Davis says:

      I agree. I’ve noticed a trend in the parenting in my community that really lets the children lead the way a little too much. Incidents like the one Vanessa mentioned are actually very common. Sometimes children just don’t feel empathy- but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be encouraged and educated on how to respond after making a mistake (hurting another child or loosing their temper). I have been around several children whose parents just model and don’t give their children the words to use and some of these kids are very hard for anyone, including other children, to want to be around. A half hearted apology can be better than nothing.

    • avatar Boggie says:

      Think about it Vanessa, when you ask a child to say sorry when they really aren’t sorry, you are asking them to lie. And when parents don’t accept the snarly sassy “SORRY” that gets tossed out and demand a “nice” sorry, they are teaching them to be really GOOD at lying – to lie convincingly! In this situation forcing a “sorry” is all about teaching a child social mores, not empathy.

      While I do think it is important to teach a child the folkways of your culture, I don’t think that doing it at the expense of their honesty is the way to go about it. I don’t know if this is proper RIE methodology, but what I prefer to do is to teach the proper response without requiring it. I let my child know that now would be an appropriate time to say sorry, but I let them choose to say it or not. And like Janet said, especially if they don’t do it, I will apologize myself sincerely.

      I agree with you that I too wouldn’t want undisciplined children with no manners playing with and hitting my children. But it sounds like you are equating lack of self-discipline and violence in the child with non-punitive parenting. That is just not the case. Many parents punish and force their children to do things because of the parent’s own fear. They are afraid if they don’t punish harshly or force the appropriate behavior, their children are going to turn out, as you said, undisciplined and violent, and may not develop into “good people”. There is always a lot of fear when it comes to “doing nothing”. People tend to believe that if you are DOING something, even if it ends up being the complete wrong thing, at least that’s better than doing nothing. But it’s just not true. Children have so much potential for developing into wonderful people all on their own, but it requires faith on our part to allow that to happen and not to mess it up with our own insecurities.

      It is a very analogous situation, IMHO to the state of medicalized birth in our culture. Doctors feel pressured to insert themselves into a natural process because on the off chance that something went wrong and they didn’t “do something” they can get sued. One unneccesary intervention leads to another in a spiral of interventions and that is how we end up with a national c-section rate of 32.8%. In much the same way, a child whose developmental journey is constantly interfered with becomes less well equipped to continue that journey independently. It becomes a whirling vortex of parental insecurity, trained helplessness, and resentment on both parts.

      So in this, and in so many other aspects of your child’s life, I hope you try to get past your own worries and trust them. And 13mo. is not too young for apologies. 1yos who speak can and do learn to say sorry, not through prompting (which they rebel against at that age) but by role modeling. And 1yos who don’t speak often show empathy and compassion by patting an arm, giving a hug, or other means. They are SO capable if we expect it, encourage it, and allow it but don’t force it!

  13. avatar Claire says:

    You are totally right that kids need to learn and develop empathy. My kids all have great empathy but i find other kids are often aggressive, often not properly supervised and have poor levels of empathy. The perpetrator is often not bad, just lacking in understanding of their impact on others. I think i went so far in building empathy and sensitivity in my children that now they dont understand when others dont behave the same. So I have started teaching my kids basic assertiveness. Saying things like
    NO don’t hit me/ STOP don’t chase me I don’t like it. It’s been amazing to watch my 5 year old go from being terrified of the school bully to teaching her friends to stand up for themselves, and now they are good friends! And the child has learnt not to scare littler children.

    • avatar janet says:

      Claire, that sounds wonderful! I believe in offering words to toddlers (like, “you can say “no, I’m using that’) and other tools (like, “you can move away”). It’s especially helpful to give them this support during the exchange with the other child, or right after.

  14. avatar Vanessa says:

    I’m not sure that empathy is the right term here. Empathy is about being able to identify with others’ feelings and having compassion for them – like a child who sees a family on the news that lost their home in a fire and collects toys, food, or clothing to send to them. An apology is more about remorse than about empathy. You don’t have to be able to empathize in order to apologize – my husband has apologized dozens of times for hurting my feelings (he was genuinely sorry I was hurt!) without having a clue why they were hurt. My husband sees the world differently. He will never truly understand and empathize with many of my feelings or reactions to things in life, but that doesn’t prevent him from being capable of apology. (although, yes, to a certain degree, he has to be capable of understanding what it is to have hurt feelings, so that is empathy, in part..)
    With children, I do think it is a bit different, though. I don’t believe that children are inherently good. If people were inherently good, there would be no evil in the world. Children, like all people, have both good and bad traits, desires, thoughts, impulses. Our job as parents is to encourage the good and teach them to refrain from the bad. There has to be both positive reinforcement AND correction of negative behavior in order for children to grow up to be productive adults capable of self-discipline.
    Children need boundaries. They need to understand that certain behaviors will result in corrective discipline and that there are ways to act in society that are right (being polite, saying please, thank you, I’m sorry) and that are wrong (throwing temper tantrums, lashing out, biting, hitting, etc.). A child is not on a path of self-discovery that ends up in flowers, and rainbows, and happiness, and good behavior. These things don’t just happen naturally by themselves. I most definitely advocate positive, gentle, nurturing, encouraging parenting – but never to the point of complete absence of some rules, boundaries, discipline, and correction.
    And yes, a forced, insincere apology would have made me feel better, because it would have shown me that at least the parent was trying to teach their child proper ways to interact with others. What happened was “do you want to apologize?” “NO!!!!!” “ok, then. Well, next time we shouldn’t hit, ok?”. What exactly was learned from this exchange? That the child can do whatever he wants and there are no consequences..
    I definitely don’t have all the answers – I am also just figuring things out as I go. It I feel like everywhere I turn, we are being told to give kids so much freedom in discovering everything for themselves and playing a role in their own development and discipline (by discussing and deciding “together” consequences for things, etc), that I feel it is completely undermining our role and responsibility as parents to raise and train our children. I think that if you don’t want to force your child to apologize, then at least take some form of action – a time-out, a toy taken away, a firm reprimand..
    I think that eventually, children will learn how to be appreciative and remorseful. Until then, they should practice saying thank you and I’m sorry…!

    • avatar Lydia Davis says:

      You are so right!

    • avatar janet says:

      Vanessa, I agree wholeheartedly about children needing boundaries (and have written many posts about that, like this one: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/04/no-bad-kids-toddler-discipline-without-shame-9-guidelines/ ). The boy in the situation you describe is clearly lacking boundaries, feels an uncomfortable, scary amount of power with his mother and is practically begging for help from her by acting violently. Whether he says “sorry” or not is the least of his worries, in my opinion. This is a sad situation. (Why is he allowed to wander around with a glass bottle?!) You don’t say how old the boy is, so it’s difficult to gauge how much empathy he might be capable of…but I definitely don’t agree with the way the mother handled this. Assuming he was 2 to 4 years old, I would have apologized profusely to you and your daughter, expressed concern for her and done anything I could to help, told my child that it was definitely not okay for him to do that and probably taken him home. I’d feel extreme concern about my son’s behavior and seek guidance.

      Empathy begins when children understand that others feel the things they feel. They learn to act with compassion, remorse, etc., when those feelings and responses are modeled for them. Your husband may not completely understand, or share your feelings about a particular situation, but he does understand that you are hurt or angry and he knows what hurt and angry feel like, so he feels sincere regret and apologizes. If he was just parroting empty words to you, I doubt it would make you feel better. Well, that wouldn’t make me feel better.

      The key is understanding what our parenting goals are… If our hope is to raise children who are genuinely kind, well-mannered, sincere and authentic, I can 100% guarantee you that commanding a toddler to mimic words is not the way to do that. Neither are time-outs, punishments, physical or verbal abuse. One of the big problems with doing those things is that they erode the relationship of trust between the child and parent, which makes children feel less secure, less competent and therefore less inclined to act with compassion.

      I guess that if we can’t view our children as inherently good, we aren’t ever going to be able to trust them to do what’s right. That is a shame, because without feeling trusted our children can’t gain true self-confidence. (I know that Attachment Parenting encompasses a variety of things and is widely interpretated, but not believing children inherently good is the last thing I would expect that philosophy to be about.) YES, children need us to prevent them from doing wrong things and be clear and consistent about our expectations. But without basic trust in them as people, they don’t have much chance of genuinely internalizing our values and getting beyond the parroting stage.

    • avatar Boggie says:

      Vanessa, perhaps you can see in your husband what end comes from just forcing our children to parrot the right words, and not truly fostering empathy?

      At any rate, I agree that children need boundaries and consequences, but they don’t need punishments generally. Parents need punishments in order to feel powerful and effective. Children need consequences. The natural consequence for hurting friends is probably as Janet said, “I can’t allow you to hurt other people. We have to go home now so that our friends can be safe while they play.” It’s not a punishment, we’re not asking them to lie to another child, but boundaries are definitely in place. Consequences are enacted with love. You can “train up a child” without being punitive. In fact, in animal training, punishments have been found to be ineffective. Go into any dog obedience training center and you won’t find them advocating any kind of punishments. Crate training is a sort of natural consequence, and treat or praise based training is the standard for obedience. Certainly our children aren’t animals, but I hope that we would offer our children at least as much love and courtesy and faith in their ability to learn proper behavior as we offer our pets.

    • avatar Sherri says:

      Thank you, thank you, thank you for this!! We need more people to tell parents that their choices are valid, even if it is not popular.

    • avatar S says:

      Excellent reply! You don’t apologize to learn empathy, you do it to make the other person feel better….

  15. avatar Scott says:

    As a man, which I see there are not a lot that frequent this site, I agree with Vanessa – “I’m not sure that empathy is the right term here. Empathy is about being able to identify with others’ feelings and having compassion for them – like a child who sees a family on the news that lost their home in a fire and collects toys, food, or clothing to send to them. *An apology is more about remorse than about empathy.*”

    You can easily “create” remorse simply by taking your child to a private area and spanking them (age dependent), explaining to them why an apology is necessary in these situations and that they must do so AND ask for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness is a separate act. Apology = remorse; Asking forgiveness = empathy

    Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

    Also, it frustrating that you are just posturing. You are simply stating your point of view as fact and hoping we’ll agree with you and swallow it whole. You offer no research, no field study of any kind to back up your assertions. When dealing with deep psychological arenas, like how adult empathy is developed in children, or how long it takes children to “absorb” a situation, you should offer up some professional references for your claims that would give us any reason to believe you.

    I could just as easily say: Most children absorb situations much faster than their adult counterparts, because their brains are newer, so forcing them to apologize teaches them the best form of empathy.

    See how that works? Just saying what I feel, no reason for anyone to believe anything I say.

    Again, Vanessa really hits the nail on the head with most of her post, so I won’t repeat the whole thing. But children really aren’t inherently good. Bad behavior MUST be corrected. The only thing Vanessa left out was the spanking.

    • avatar janet says:

      Wow. I’ll pray for you, sir.

    • avatar Sherri says:

      Thank you, Scott, for also being a voice of reason in this forum. Remorse is totally different than empathy- and I love my children, which is why I both model apologizing AND having them say it. It should be the first reaction to injuring someone, not ignoring it.

      And I spank my children when necessary. I’m not evil. Please do not paint me so. Parenting is hard enough without all the second guessing from *everyone.*

  16. avatar Amy says:

    I’m interested as to why your gender makes a difference in your response to this issue, Scott? (And the relevance as to the predominant gender of the respondents?)

    And have you been informed (I assume you have kids?) as to how your children behave towards others when you are not there to enforce their remorse? When I see kids whose parents control all of their social interactions away from their parent/s I find they are either entirely too fearful to take part in any meaningful social contact, or more commonly, that once they have the freedom to act as they please they like to lord it over other kids (the way they’ve evidently learned from their parents!)
    I defy any parent who has anything to do with children on a daily basis to tell me modelling is ineffective in shaping the social development of a child.

  17. Janet, since this post first came out I’ve had more thoughts about the subject. I think it’s really valuable to separate being sorry for the behaviour (which children may come to feel and express themselves if we are careful not to force the issue) and being sorry for the emotion which caused the behaviour (which I think is inappropriate- we must allow children to own and hold their feelings). It was just the other day that I wrote this post about it- you might be interested: http://auntannieschildcare.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/sorry-doesnt-fix-it-getting-to-bottom.html

    I’m going to link this post of yours on my page- I think we’re singing the same song again! ;)

  18. avatar Belinda Heit says:

    Thanks for yet another great read, Janet. Personally, I felt really proud of my 2 and a half year old son as I read it, remembering the un-prompted ‘I’m sorry’ I received recently. He had snapped an old plastic head-band of mine, and at the time, I explained that people feel upset/sad when we break things that belong to them. He hoped that ‘Daddy could fix it’ (as always!) but I said ‘probably not this time’. Hours later, he found the other half of the head-band and showed it to me, saying ‘I’m sorry about this, Mummy!’.
    You’ve also made me realise that he has been ‘apologising’ in his own ways for a long time – patting someone where they’re hurt, grabbing paper towels for a spill, and giving toys/hugs to his baby sister/other kids.
    He is a terrific kid but I would like to take some credit as my husband and I do our best to parent patiently and positively! :)

  19. avatar Missy Kay says:

    I love and get a lot from your articles as well as facebook share them. However I was wondering how to teach empathy to my two moderately autistic 5 and 6 year olds as they benefit from direct instruction or direct modeling only on tangible subjects. I wont be able to model empathy and have them realize it as a valuable skillset to acquire. I know because I have been trying. Please let me know your ideas as I believe they are still young enough to benefit from a positive change in my approach.

    • avatar janet says:

      Thank you, Missy! That is an excellent question and a little bit out of my realm of knowledge, but I’ll give it a shot. I totally agree that your children are young enough to benefit from any positive changes you might make. Could you tell me a little more about how you are approaching this now? I’m assuming that you and others apologize to your children… Maybe you could explore with them how that makes them feel. If they are unaffected by the apologies, you might explain the importance — saying “sorry” lets people know that you care about them, etc. Your children might need to learn this from the outside in, by saying it before they really mean it, but then afterwards you could discuss what they noticed about the other person and how they felt.

    • avatar Momma2 says:

      Hi. What a great article! I have really struggled with teaching my kids (with strong ASD traits, but not actually on the spectrum – a long story!!!) to make false apologies. I strongly disagree with doing this. I do agree that children must make repairs when they hurt or upset another child so that their actions show that they are thinking of the child and the impact of their own behavior. I also apologize to the other child – some kids really need it to move on.
      Missy Kay – Explaining “ouch, that really hurt/upset ____ when you ____”, then relate it to an injury/injustice that you know they have experienced fairly recently can really help. These wee guys need something to pin others’ experiences to. That’s where empathy comes from – from a shared understanding. All young kids, and our kiddos with ASD/ASD traits at an older age, just don’t have empathy. They are egocentric, the world revolves around them. It’s a developmental thing for all young kids, and something that children with high functioning autism can often (not always!!!) learn to reason through logically with practice – it may never come naturally, but becomes a little checklist in their heads that they can refer to (eg 1. Where was I? Where was ___? Did we touch when ___ fell? 2. Are they crying/laughing? 3. If they are crying, have I asked if they are okay? 4. Do they want me to help or get help? 5. Have I told a mommy/daddy? 6. What can I do to make them happy again? 7. Have I done it? 8. Have I said sorry?). It’s an intellectual approach to empathy and takes a lot of facilitation. I also make sure the repairs are tangible eg no hugs (they always end up being too rough, too long, or just feeling overwhelming for a crying child), but an ice pack or cold flannel, helping rebuild the building how it was (not how they think it should be!!!), getting the truck back etc and always going and getting adult help. Remember – if your kids are on the spectrum, you NEED to give yourself a break; typical parenting just doesn’t work. It takes creativity, trial and error, and a lot of wine ;)

  20. Interesting discussion… One thing I’ve been doing with my 11-month old is pointing out “that must have hurt” when he falls or otherwise hurts himself. I am hoping that by giving a word to the pain he’s experiencing, it will help him develop awareness and empathy when he hurts someone else and I or the victim tell him: “that hurt”.

    • avatar janet says:

      Exactly! You are modeling empathy…which is by far the most powerful way to teach it to your children.

  21. avatar Rachel P says:

    Thank you for this post! I’ve known for a long time what I *didn’t* want to do in these situations (force an apology) but haven’t known what *to* do. These are some great tools to have in my toolbox.

  22. avatar Jeronima says:

    This is a wonderful post Janet. I had read it a while ago but today I had to read it again. I am just so glad that the incident happened with a friend of mine who has the same parenting ideas. I am so grateful for having found Magda Gerber and blogs like yours.

    • avatar janet says:

      Jeronima, thank you so much for this lovely shout-out.

  23. avatar LoraJ says:

    Janet, Just wanted to say that I REALLY appreciate the positivity, peacefulness, gentleness of your posts and your responses to comments on your website and I wanted to share this quote that reminds me of you and how your handle yourself with such grace when some responders are confrontational. Thanks for all your work!

    “When people insult you, don’t take offense, but do listen to their words. They are telling you the exact negative qualities that they possess. “The Law of Mirrors” states that one can only see what’s in them, regardless if it is what is actually present in reality or not. Release the need to defend or try to explain to them that you’re not being whatever-nasty-insult-they’ve-thrown-at-you, but evaluate instead all of the insults, and realize that this is who they are. Then decide if a person with those qualities is one who you’d like in your life or not.” ~~ Doe Zantamata.

    • avatar janet says:

      Thank you so much for the great compliment, Lora! Nothing could make me happier.

      • avatar Jill Reichman says:

        I dare say this is the best post I have ever read. It never felt right to me when I was forced to say I was sorry, and it never felt better to hear a reluctant person say it to me. This merely causes embarrassment and shame. Thank you so much for the enlightenment.

  24. avatar Tracy says:

    Hi Janet – thank you so much for this great post! I wonder if I might ask you a question from the opposite side. I do my best to follow exactly the path you describe, and try hard to maintain a space of calm, assertive CEO-hood with both of my children (clear limits set with empathy and held, although I readily admit exasperation can definitely creep in!). My older son (4) most of the time will spontaneously apologize or offer help when he accidentally hurts someone or something. When it is more intentional, however, and I say to him (and stop him physically if need be) “I won’t let you…” or “Ouch. Look at your sister’s face. That hurt her” or something along those lines he will often say something like “I won’t do that again.” I know he doesn’t mean these words, but has clearly picked them up as a “good” response. Do you have any advice for how to handle the empty responses when they happen? I’ve tried things like “Saying you are sorry/won’t do that again is a good start, and now you need to follow through with your actions.” I honestly have not felt, however, that this has been very effective. We do regular special time and roughousing with him as well, if that helps or provides more context. Thanks again for all you do!

  25. avatar Mommy to be says:

    Great ideas!

  26. avatar Aunt Betty says:

    Spot on Janet! I can’t stand forced apologies. I think over my own childhood and find sometimes someone deserved to get pushed or hit (in my case due to being bullied). I wasn’t always sorry and if I’d been asked to apologize I wouldn’t.

    Now that I’m an aunt and nanny I never make a child apologize for their actions. I do however explain why their actions are not appropriate and ask if the child understands what he or she did is wrong. Sometimes it is necessary to have the child think about the situation. Then we decide what would be a better solution.

    • avatar Aunt Betty says:

      (continuation of my comment…)

      Sometimes you just aren’t sorry even when you know your actions were unkind.

  27. avatar Sarah says:

    I am new to RIE and have just been reading through to learn more as I begin to implement it with my 6 month old and almost 2 year old daughters.

    My older daughter has picked up on saying “sorry” mostly from hearing us and others say it. However she doesn’t understand it. She says sorry to the door if she bumps into it or to herself when she gets hurt (sometimes even when she had nothing to do with it like when I tripped and bumped into her a bit). Sometimes she just says it and I don’t see any reason (no one and nothing got hurt, bumped, even touched).

    When she apologizes correctly (maybe after being too rough with little sister) I try to encourage it. “Thank you for telling Sabrina you are sorry, that can help her feel better.”

    I try to explain that she doesn’t have to apologize other times. “You did not hurt me when you walked past so you do not really need to say sorry.”

    It just bothers me because she sounds so sad and so very sorry when she says “sorry” usually. I don’t want her to feel bad all the time. I would love to hear your thoughts on how to handle this situation. Do I just stop trying to explain it and hope that she will learn as she grows? I try to explain my apologies more so that hopefully it will help her learn as she sees it. For example instead of just saying “I am sorry” I try to say “Joey, I am sorry I startled you”.

  28. avatar Annie V says:

    Hi Janet,

    Thanks for the wonderful article. I’ve been following you on facebook for about 12 months and I’ve learned such a lot that really works from your writing!

    How do you go about removing your child from the play date if it’s at your house? I assume you wouldn’t ask the guest to leave. Also what if you are the guest but you’ve only just arrived?

    If you’ve addressed tiredness and hunger and reassured your child of your unconditional love, and the play date becomes violent (in toddler terms) but you as the parent need the adult interaction as much as your child needs the play, what then? I don’t use “if you continue to behave this way then we will have to go home” because it robs me of my play date also. I would much rather deal with the issue than remove my child (aged 3 btw) from it.

    Is it just a case of practising empathy and model concern for the injured party and model apologising?

  29. avatar Theresa says:

    Long ago I read that all animals have a “way out” of conflict. For humans, that’s saying sorry. I think it is fine to teach your child to say sorry as a means of taming a social situation, while at the same time teaching them about compassion and how they would feel if that happened to them, even if they aren’t genuinely sorry in the heat of the moment.

  30. avatar Sophia says:

    Hi Janet,

    First, I have to say that I am discovering your blog and … I Love what I read! A good friend of mine talked to me about you and now I just regret that anyone has not translate your books in french yet (what a pity! Even if I can read english…)

    I was wondering about this “sorry” situation because I am a mother of 2 years-old and I am a teacher (9/10 years old) and … for now I just force them… I feel this is not the good solution because It does not change anything!

    So, thank you, merci!
    I will try to do what you said… in french! LOL :D
    Many kisses, thanks for being such a nice person!

  31. avatar Avalon says:

    I’m new to your site and RIE and am just so unbelievably grateful for all the work that you have done and continue to do. It resonates so deeply with me as the new parent of an eight-month old. She’s bright and curious and capable and I’m so happy to have found a set of “rules” that help me honor her as the whole person I knew she was from day 1.

    Would you mind elaborating or directing me to an explanation of “hi” and “bye” being loaded words? My daughter is obsessed with waving and often mimics a breathy high-pitched “hiiiiiii,” which I’ve encouraged because, well, it’s so darn cute and she seems so thrilled to be communicating and eliciting a response from us where we all say hi and wave to each other. Is this encouraging performative behavior?

    Like many of your posts, this makes me think about my own tendencies – in this case to mindlessly say I’m sorry ALL the time. To anyone and everyone, even when it makes no sense. Almost like Sarah’s daughter saying “sorry” to the door! I need to work on understanding where that comes from and think about what I’m modeling.

  32. avatar Jackie says:

    I’ve had trouble with being taught saying sorry always fixes things, because I have Asperger’s Syndrome and get anxious and confused when sorry doesn’t work. I think I should have been taught what to do in a more complex situation. I was born in 1982, when there was very little known about Autism, so I guess they thought teaching kids with it black & white problem solving was the best.

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