Making Kids Say They're Sorry (Don't)

Making Kids Say They’re Sorry (Don’t)

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What does it mean when you say, “I’m Sorry”?

Saying  “I’m sorry” is an act of apology.
It’s telling someone you feel badly for hurting them in some way--for saying or doing something offensive –for breaking–pushing–being mean– or not understanding how another feels. Sometimes it’s on purpose–sometimes accidental.

That said…
When appropriate, WE WANT our children to sincerely feel sorry and apologize. We WANT them to take responsibility and ownership for their actions. In the real world this doesn’t always happen.

Whether you’re a parent or working with children –
What do we do when Johnny hits Tommy?  Suzie takes away a toy? Joel tells Kyle he hates him?

Often without thinking an adult will say, “Say you’re sorry!”

What if the child is NOT sorry?  He/she is still too angry, doesn’t want to get into trouble, or is feeling defensive.  Making a child say they’re sorry, when they are not, doesn’t help the injured party feel any better nor does it teach the offending child a positive life lesson.

Do we want our child to grow up to be a person who says, “Well, I SAID I was sorry!” Making children say they are sorry only to satisfy an adult, or to not get into trouble, can create the habit of avoiding taking responsibility for actions.

So then, what can we do?

1.  Investigate. Find out what happened and what happened before that.

2.  If an apology and restitution is indicated–and the child does not sincerely apologize on their own–WE should say we are sorry.


  • Tommy, I am so sorry that Bill tore your picture. I can see it took a long time to make it.
  • The child with the hurt feelings and the torn picture hears words of empathy-he knows that someone understands how he feels.
  • The offending child has the benefit of good role modeling. He has heard words of empathy.

2. Next, have the hurt child tell the other child how he feels.


  • I feel bad that you tore my picture. It took me a long time to draw and color it.

3. If Bill says something such as–

  •  “I’m  sorry I ruined it; it was wrong for me to do that”… you’re on your way to a good conflict resolution!

4. Next ask Bill what he can do about it? Some ideas he may come up with or say are:

  • I can help tape it.
  • We can do another one together
  • What can I can do to make it better?

The lesson here is for children to learn that some things are right and some are wrong. If wrong, we help children figure out what to do to fix it and/or what to do differently next time.

5. The above are some responses for which we hope. If the aggressor takes ownership, responsibility, and discusses alternative behavior, nothing more is needed.  If you need to talk to the aggressive child–be sure to send the other child away. (Privacy)

6. If you are working in a child care program, and the aggressor does not take responsibility nor discuss it, then the parent should be involved and/or a behavior notice step taken –whichever is indicated.

A little more… October’s Thought of the Month, “Don’t ask Kids Why?”  ties in with this topic. Read both for a more complete thought. You may be surprised on why NOT to ask kids ‘why’

When a child misbehaves and is asked, “Why did you do that?” You may get a reason. When a reason is given–he/she may feel the behavior is validated. He/she may say– I”m sorry BUT______which in essence is is giving a reason that blames another and does not taking ownership nor responsibility for actions.

  • He is saying, I’m sorry but he was bothering me.
  • I’m sorry but he was humming loud.
  • I’m sorry but he was looking at me funny.

When a child says, “I’m sorry BUT…” he is again not taking ownership but putting the blame on someone or something else.
This isn’t an apology.

Barb Shelby


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