What to Say to Young Children Instead of “sorry”

A few years ago, while traveling to different preschools for my daughter, I visited one where I had the opportunity to observe children playing in the playground. Climbing the stairs on the hill, one boy accidentally stepped on a little girl’s finger, and she began to cry. What happened next amazed me.

The boy, who was 3 years old, approached the girl, looked into her eyes and asked: “Are you okay? Can I get you a wet towel? “

She wiped away her tears, shook her head, and they both returned to the game.

I looked at the director of the preschool, well, what was that?

“We don’t force kids to apologize,” she explained. “This word means little without action that will help improve the situation.”

The exchange was such a departure from what I’m used to seeing among parents who tend to force their kids to apologize for every accidental bump, bump, and destruction of a newly built Lego masterpiece. Usually they look at the child sternly and ask: “Hey, what do you say?” Then, when the kid mutters a robotic “sorry”, it’s okay! Manners! We teach them!

But such an approach can be largely meaningless, writes Heather Schumaker in her book It’s All Okay Not Sharing and Other Rules of Apostasy for Raising Competent and Compassionate Children . Kids love the word “sorry,” explains Schumaker, as it magically lets them off the hook. “It’s a bit like teaching kids to ride,” she writes. The problem with the “apologetic” solution is that many young children – say, preschool age – have not reached the stage of moral development to actually regret, so parents are missing out on a key opportunity to teach true empathy.

Schumaker writes:

Small children sometimes deceive us. They can imitate “sorry” and even cry when another child is crying, but most children are not yet able to apologize. Children are different – you may bloom early – but most children simply lack the emotional and cognitive development to feel remorse. Repentance requires the ability to look at the other person’s point of view and fully understand cause and effect. These skills are still emerging in young children. Expecting young children to say “I’m sorry,” teaches them nothing more than a consistent, fallacious lesson: kick, say “I’m sorry,” and move on.

Instead, parents can help children develop moral compassion by explaining that their actions have consequences, showing that there is something they can do to make things better, and modeling ways to use the word sorry meaningfully.

For everyday incidents, Shumaker suggests the following steps:

Get the kids together

Schumaker explains that sometimes when kids think they’re about to get into trouble, they run away. If this happens, you can hug the child and say something like, “You need to come back here. Callie was hurt. Even if you didn’t want to do it, she suffered, and you need to return. “

Tell the child who caused the accident what happened and be specific.

Even when what happened seems obvious, you need to point it out to a young child. State the facts. “Your shopping cart has moved into her leg.” “Your hand hit her painting with a cup of water.” “You were dancing and your hand hit her in the face.”

Describe what you see

Learning about the facts of the scene helps children develop empathy. Emphasize the consequences of their actions for the other child (or adult) and be specific: “Look, he’s crying. He has a scratch on his arm. It probably hurts.

A pattern of empathy for an offended child

Ask the child, “Are you okay?”


The book explains that, although young children may not fully understand the pangs of conscience, they know how to act. They can run to grab a band-aid or ice pack, or help clean up the mess they’ve created. Help them take responsibility.

Make a guarantee

Schumaker writes: “The certainty that this will not happen again means something. “Soorry, no “. To restore trust between children, she writes, ask the child who caused the accident to give the other child assurance that he won’t do it again. You may ask, “Are you going to hit him again?” or have her say, “I won’t hit you anymore.”

Model says sorry in her life

At the end of the day, we really want the kids to apologize. But instead of getting them to apologize, Schumaker writes that it’s more effective to simulate an apology when you, as a parent, screw up. Just make sure your own apology makes sense. This means being aware of the consequences of your actions and taking steps to improve the situation. For example: “I’m sorry I forgot to bring your teddy bear to school. You missed him while sleeping. I put this on my list to remember next time. ” Soon the kids are saying “sorry” without prompting, and they will really mean it.

This story was originally published in 2017 with new information on 02/11/2020.


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