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Does your child know how to say sorry sincerely?


I’ve often wondered what the phrase “I’m sorry” really means to a child. Do children really mean it, or understand what they are saying?

I’ve heard very small children blurt it out after whatever they’ve done, but I’ve also seen kids use it as convenient exit out of whatever mess they’ve created, without actually feeling remorse.

They seem to see apologies as a license to do as they please, against their siblings or friends, since the only consequence is the utterance of two simple words.

But then I find it heartwarming to see children apologize when they are sincerely sorry for something they’ve done. My son Juanmi once got too close to a little girl on a swing and ended up getting accidentally pushed as the swing came down.

He probably wasn’t hurt, as he didn’t get upset at all, but I was so touched to see his friend jump down and run to him as quickly as I did. She hugged him tightly and apologized with a look on her face that said she truly meant it.

But just as apologies can come quick as lightning, it can also be as slow as a turtle for other kids. Could it already be pride at such a young age? Or are they simply being honest about their feelings (“No! I’m NOT sorry! She pushed me first!”)?

These situations can be very frustrating and embarrassing. Usually it’s a grabbing/pushing/not sharing incident, and before you know it, another child is crying because of your child’s actions, and no matter how your eyes bulge as you give your child the death stare, he/she won’t budge and you end up making the apology for the two of you.

True remorse

At home, I’ve heard all kinds of apologies from my toddler and preschooler. I appreciate the ones said with true remorse the most, but I’ll accept those muttered quietly as well, because we all know that it’s not always easy to apologize. I’m familiar with that long silence when you ask for an apology and get none in return.

I don’t appreciate the apologies that come with a million and one reasons and excuses as to why he/she did it. The apology I refuse to accept is the one that gives a condition before he/she will apologize.

As parents, we want to teach our children to grow up to be good people, and part of that is having the humility to acknowledge their mistakes, take responsibility and apologize for them. And since humble pie is an acquired taste, it helps to get them used to it as early in childhood as possible, so that it becomes second nature to them when they become adults. It’s also by example, so that means we aren’t exempt from apologizing and have to lead the way.

It’s not always easy to navigate the adult world—they’ll need to get along with family and in-laws, bosses and officemates, and all the people they will come across in their life, and if we can’t teach them to apologize at four, I doubt anyone will be able to teach them to apologize, if they don’t want to, when they are 40.

But that’s life. We may not always feel like doing something, but life dictates that we do what is right at all times, regardless of whether we want to or not, and that includes apologies.

Apart from admitting our own faults, apologizing is also about drawing our children’s attention to the experience of their victims. Teaching children to apologize is more than just teaching them to say the words. It is using that moment to highlight what the other party is feeling, and developing their sense of empathy for the pain of others and regret over moral values or rules that have been broken.

With these in mind, I’ve tried laying down some guidelines for apologies for my kids over the last two years. Sometimes they work, other times, well, we all know how “other” times go.

Be sorry—Here’s where the basic “I’m sorry” comes in. As I said earlier, we don’t always feel like doing or saying something, but hopefully my kids learn that there are certain things in life that are non-negotiable, whether we like it or not.

Admittedly, you can’t force sincerity, so I try to explain what they’ve done and make them understand why it’s wrong and why an apology is in order. After we talk, I give them a little space and time to think about what they’ve done, usually while facing the corner and patiently wait for them to say they’re ready to talk.


 ‘The corner’

I find that giving my older child a reasonable amount of time (but not an unlimited time!) to think about her actions makes her more sincere in her apology.

“The corner” used to be a threat/punishment on its own but as my daughter got older, it lost its efficacy in curbing negative behavior. It still works for my 2½-year-old son, but for my 4½-year-old daughter, it seems to be better as a venue for contemplation after I talk to her.

There’s nothing to distract her, so talking to her has a greater effect, and removing her from the ruckus has a calming effect on everyone, making it easier for her to bring herself to apologize.

2. Be specific in what you are apologizing for—No if’s, no but’s. I want to know that they know what they have done wrong, and that they aren’t simply parroting the words. I don’t like accepting any excuses with the apology either.

I don’t mind taking more time to talk about what caused her behavior and acknowledging her feelings, but when it’s time to apologize, I prefer that both kids learn to be accountable for their actions. That means apologizing and taking responsibility for what they did, not blaming someone else or making excuses to justify their actions. And definitely no conditional apologies.

3. Express an intention not to repeat the mistake—“I won’t do it again.” There are things that I know they won’t do again, such as intentionally breaking a sibling’s toy. But we all know that there are certain things (harassing their siblings, not sharing, etc.) that kids will repeat. And again. And again. But at least, there is the spoken intention not to, and with it, the hope that it will be the last time we have to hear it.

After all has been said and done, we do the hugs and kisses, then move on. There’s no sense in constantly bringing up something they’ve already apologized for.

Recently I came across an article that had a suggestion which I think would make a good addition. According to Peter Herbst, it helps to also “Make it right,” which is all about helping your child solve the problem he created, or showing him how he should respond to a similar situation in the future.

For example, if he breaks his brother’s toy, aside from the apology, he may give a suggestion on how to rectify the situation, such as fixing it or giving his own as a replacement. In other situations, such as pushing a child back when provoked, mom and child may discuss what to do instead next time if it happens again, such as walking away.

In this way, the apology becomes a problem solver, and they become better equipped to deal with similar scenarios.

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Tags: Audrey Tan-Zubiri , PARENTING , Peter Herbst

  • basilionisisa

    oh dear, i can see how you are obsessed with political correctness. i worry about your son growing with guilt complex for feeling sorry for every tiny little thing that might not be worth fussing about.

    Saying ‘sorry’ in a ‘sincere’ manner cannot be taught, and certainly cannot be forced on anyone. the best thing, rather, to teach your son is how he could put himself in the position where he would never have to say the word ‘I am sorry!’

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