Why forcing kids to say sorry may not be a good idea

Why forcing kids to say sorry may not be a good idea
The other day my toddler wasn’t in the best of moods. It was one of those, “Let me complain about the littlest things” kind of days. He and his dad were rough housing when LO hit his dad with a plastic toy. Right away the air changed from giddiness to tension, and LO was in no mood to be schooled.

Still, I knelt down to my toddler’s eye level and sternly said, “We don’t hit other people.” Okay, so far so good. “Daddy got really sad and hurt when you hit him,” I continued. Then I told him, “Say ‘I’m sorry’.”

“I’m sorry,” my toddler replied in between tears. I doubt he even knew what ‘sorry’ was, because clearly he wasn’t—a few minutes later he runs after his dad and smacks him again with his hand. Insert a few more parenting mishaps here and a tad more toddler crying there, and you get the idea of how the rest of the evening went.

When the day finally ended, my husband and I talked about what happened and what we could have done instead. We agreed that forcing him to say “I’m sorry” may not have been the best tactic. Yet that phrase is often forced on many kids and even touted as good manners. After all, when you hurt someone, you express your grief at having done so by saying sorry.

Except saying sorry only works when you mean it. And when you know what it even means.

Teaching manners is often a reason why parents want their kids to say sorry. I’m trying to raise a polite boy; the kind who respects others, asks for things politely, and yes, apologizes when he does wrong. I also probably felt compelled to tell my toddler to say sorry because of the weight of his crime. Playing with the blinds or flinging food on the floor don’t warrant stern discipline; hitting does. In my need to match the wrongdoing with the appropriate consequence, I pulled out the “Say you’re sorry” card.

But just as kids shouldn’t be forced to share, I realize that neither should they be forced to say sorry. A true apology lies in the child’s own initiative, or at the least, his understanding of the hurt the other person might feel. Telling kids to say sorry before they feel remorseful makes them say things that aren’t the truth for them, forcing them to admit a feeling they don’t agree with or comprehend.

Telling to kids to say sorry might also make them feel ashamed and confused about their feelings. Already ridden with guilt, or at least an awareness that they did something wrong, kids may feel like they’ve lost a bit of support when forced to apologize.

And forcing an apology slaps an immediate resolution to the conflict without delving further into why he got frustrated in the first place, or what he could have done instead. The more he’s able to identify what triggers him to misbehave (was he upset? feeling ignored? tired?), the more he can find other alternatives to hitting (e.g. saying “I’m mad!”).

While kids shouldn’t always be forced to say sorry, they shouldn’t be let off the hook, either. I definitely needed to lay down the rules, but I should have waited until he calmed down before even talking about or trying to resolve the incident. Forget about trying to say anything logical to kids while they’re crying or hysterical—they won’t learn anything and they’re probably not even listening. Once he calmed down, I could try to talk about why he misbehaved: “You seemed upset when you hit your dad…” It’s that empathy again. Since my kid is only two-years-old, this will be a lot of filling in and guessing most of the time, but even doing this exercise will provide the vocabulary he’ll need for when he can be more verbal about his feelings.

Next, I could talk about what he can do instead. Again, since he’s on the younger side, I can help him fill in the blank: “Maybe when you’re upset, you can say ‘I’m mad’.” And finally, I could help him come up with a solution on how to make it up to the other person: “What can you do to make Daddy feel better? What if you gave him a hug, or told him you’re sorry?” At this point, after he’s calmed down and has realized he hurt someone, can we then encourage him to say I’m sorry.

This is still something I’m working on—just a few days ago I caught myself telling him to say sorry again right away without really trying to figure out the underlying issue. And there are times when telling your kids to say sorry is appropriate; if he accidentally steps on someone’s toes or does anything unintentionally, he should say “I’m sorry,” just as we say “excuse me” if we bumped into someone or “please” when we ask for something. But for more intentional acts, forcing kids to say sorry when they’re not ready may only make them feel isolated and ashamed, doesn’t provide an opportunity to learn other alternatives to express frustration, and denies kids the chance to express remorse all on their own.

How do you handle apologies when your kid has done something wrong? Do you find that forcing apologies has helped or hindered the situation?

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31 thoughts on “Why forcing kids to say sorry may not be a good idea

  1. Definitely! Let me bring another perspective into this: my girl has had a playmate who every time she was invited over would start hitting my toddler almost the moment she stepped through the door. It happened with both mummies present but more often then not when our backs were turned. I don’t know to the day what sets her but she can be quite vicious, pushing my toddler on the floor, slapping her…etc. It got so bad that I felt I had to stop the “play dates” because it wasn’t fair on my girl to feel threatened in her own home. Her mummy, dear help her, always made her apologise. It never worked because this toddler needed other means to be contained(removed from the room, having the toy she was trying to snatch taken from her..etc). Toddlers don’t understand “sorry”. they just parrot words…

    • Oh wow I don’t blame you for wanting to stop the play dates. That toddler’s actions is similar to what made me think of how effective forced apologies are because my toddler said sorry but I don’t think understood what it meant or why he was being told to do it. I’d rather delve into why he acted up, or like your toddler’s playmate, maybe her mom could try and see why her daughter acts up and work on that instead.

      I think when we’re in social settings like your play date and especially when it comes to hitting, we want to set it right by having them say sorry so that it’s not embarrassing or that people know we teach our kids manners. But then I wonder how fair it is to the kids who have no clue what sorry is.

      • Yeah, I think with toddlers we need to learn that their behaviour doesn’t reflect on us necessarily and as you say, we need to be able to deal with a cool head with that’s at hand.

  2. The fabulous preschool teacher who works with my 3-year old also insists that “I’m sorry” isn’t appropriate until a child is much older. Instead, she has the children say “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” It uses words the kids can understand much more easily. And, they will likely mean that. When my kid kicks me in the head, he doesn’t mean to hurt me; he means to express his anger or show me his disgust. Or, his body reacts to the frustration, pain, sadness and angst he feels and he flails, thus making contact with my cranium with his giant man-child foot.

    We also try to teach our son to take a deep breath when he’s angry or frustrated. He’s started doing it on his own now without prompting and seems to cut back on (albeit not eliminate) some outbursts.

    • You just gave me two terrific ideas I hadn’t thought about. I love your teacher’s idea of saying “I didn’t mean to hurt you” because more often than not it’s true. When my toddler hit his dad, I think his frustration took over and that was what he resorted to; he didn’t plan and say, “I’m going to hit my dad.” Excellent idea!

      I also like your idea of teaching him to take breaths. I’m trying to think of alternative ways he can express anger and the only one I can think of is him saying “I’m mad.” I started writing a post about this and collecting my thoughts, because an old method I used to do was for him to hit a pillow or the couch instead, although I’ll explain in that post why I don’t even want to do that. But I love your idea of taking deep breaths!

        • YES! I’m putting your ideas to use next time my toddler decides to hit / step on / generally assault his baby brother …maybe if I catch him right before he does it and say “are you trying to hurt your brother or is something else wrong. maybe we could do X instead of hit” he’ll start thinking.

  3. Something to think about!
    We watch Baby Signing Time because I wanted her to learn sign language. Something that has been a blessing to all of us and something that has tremendously had an impact on her speech. Anyway, there is a song called “Please, Thank You, Sorry” which teaches the signs and it talks about how it makes everyone feel good when we say these things. I personally think that it’s good to get in the habit of having them say sorry. But at the same time we try to impose upon her how it makes us feel when she hits or talks back. So when she says sorry, it’s connected to making the other person feel better, and righting a wrong.

  4. I find that I often resort to doing or saying things my parents did- because that’s what I know. I remember once, as a child, my mother being very mad at me for not saying “yes, ma’am.” I couldn’t understand why she wanted me to say it so bad! I try to imaging how my son perceives my corrections and be aware of his level of understanding. It is so hard, but I think the fact you consider your child’s perspective at all is what makes you a good parent.

  5. Our preschool doesn’t focus on “I’m sorry,” either, and instead work with the kids on choices and consequences. We do this at home, as well, though I have noticed that our daughter will apologize for certain things on her own lately, particularly if she sees that her hitting has hurt one of us, etc.

    I also think that toddlers’ understanding of their actions and the consequences of them tie directly into language development – not just being able to say the words “I’m sorry” but to be able to articulate their own feelings surrounding an action. I know that as our daughter’s language development has increased (full, complex sentences, more introspective, articulation of emotions, as well as reasons for emotions), her reaction to her own anger has become less impulsive, using words more often…though certainly not always and most times those words are screamed at the top of her lungs.

  6. Great post, very thought provoking. I’ve realized lately that some of my “explanations” to my toddler are just going over his head.
    I do have a question for you (or anyone who wants to respond): When my son does something / misbehaves, I ask him why he did that (even if it was something good or neutral and just surprising) and he always says “because I did” UGH! so frustrating for me. Any suggestions on me getting him to understand what I’m asking and actually giving me a response? I’ve tried prompting and sometimes that works (I’ll say “we’re you sad?” he’ll say yes or no, and I’ll go through a list of possible reasons until he finally says yes to something) but I’d like something a bit more telling of why? is this even possible (he’s 2 and will be 3 in May).

    • I think you’re on the right track with prompting him. You can keep practicing questioning and answering with your kid and I’m sure over time he’ll be more vocal and specific. This is what we’ve been doing:

      We point out things to him and ask him, “What’s that?” And he can answer “bed.”

      After an outing or at the end of the day, we ask him, “What did you do today?” Usually we know the answer and we prompt him, “Did you see the fountain today?” And usually he’ll fill in from there. Or you can ask, “What did you eat for lunch?” And if he doesn’t respond you can prompt again, “Did you eat strawberries?” and wait to see if he’ll respond.

      You can also encourage him to tell his dad or another person what he did with you. “Tell Daddy what we did today at the park!”

      Have you tried doing something similar? Hopefully these ideas can help!

      • Yup I’ve tried that. The trouble is, he’s really a smart kid because he can describe exactly what he did including explanations as to why sometimes…I think what’s happening is his emotions are confusing the reasoning if that makes sense?

  7. A few months ago, our 2-year-old started saying, “I’m sorry” without any prompting. It surprised us because we’d never asked her to – our responses to misbehavior had been like yours: “It makes me sad when…” We think maybe her day care encourages “I’m sorry.” It doesn’t really bother me enough to make a fuss about. I will say, though, that her apologies are sometimes overly remorseful: She sounds as sad and regretful about spilling her juice as she does about throwing a book at me. So I think you’re right – “sorry” requires a level of perspective that toddlers just don’t have yet. I don’t want my kiddo to feel *bad* about an accident.

  8. Great article. It’s so true, as adults we know when we receive an insincere apology. As a parent I’m constantly catching myself reassessing the way I discipline my daughter. I usually ask her, ” do you think it was o.k. to hit daddy or knock over your toys? ” and she usually responds with, “no, that wasn’t good behavior mommy.”

  9. Why did you…? is just too abstract for the small ones. Wait until 5 or 6 to ask that! At our school, we help the child who is hurt to tell his/her friend: i didn’t like that. I can’t play with you if you hit me. And the child who does the hitting may help bring a tissue or sit with the person who was hurt…that way they can begin to see the impact of what they did and help make it right. And the one who is hurt learns to express their boundaries and feelings about what happened. If they want to say sorry, that is fine, but not the most important part of the process. I remind them that saying sorry means they won;t do it again Some kids hit and hit and say sorry but it doesn’t lessen the hitting.

    • Great input, Stacey—I hadn’t considered introducing the other child who was hurt into the equation (probably because the “other child” in my example was my husband lol!). But I love how your school also gives the child who was hurt a chance to express his boundaries.

      Ad regarding asking “Why did you…” another commenter was asking about this and I’m going to point her to your comment. I wasn’t sure what the developmental stage for explaining behaviors and it seems like your comment will be helpful to her. Thanks!

      • I hadn’t realized it was too early to introduce the concept, but it makes sense since it’s rather abstract…he thinks everything in the past happened yesterday so it makes sense that he wouldn’t be able to formulate an answer to a question like that.
        Thanks for telling me about this comment 🙂

    • My daughter’s been getting pushed around by a few of the kids in the church nursery on a fairly regular basis (as told to us by a an adult). She’s very verbal so I like the idea of teaching her to say, “I didn’t like that. I can’t play with you if you hit me.” And of course she does the hitting sometimes and I also like the suggestion to have her help make it right. Great suggestions.

      • If you have not seen it, the book Noni Says No by Heather Hartt-Sussman might also be a good thing to read with your daughter. While it’s not directly about hitting, it does focus on speaking up when you do not want to do something or do not like how you are being treated. We used this with our daughter and it really helped her think about how to use words not just to express herself but also to stand up for herself using words.

        • Thanks, I’ll look for the book. It seems like the nursery workers are pretty on top of it but I want to give my daughter the tools to learn to deal with it as well.

  10. I agree with the sentaments, but I will say that it is easier: “linguistically speaking,” to say “I’m sorry,” than it is to say: “I didn’t mean to do that.” I know parents who say: “Sorry is too abstract,” or “They don’t know what they are saying, anyway,” and then don’t teach the child anything. My LO is 4mo, so can’t put anything into practice yet. But, I’ll save this for later.

  11. I think sometimes they think that saying sorry straight after doing something they shouldn’t means that it cancels out their bad behaviour.

  12. Love this…. I have gone back and forth on this topic…. And this post is helping me to develop what works best for our fam…. Thank you

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