To Make Kids Say “Sorry”… Or Not To? Written by Shara Lawrence-Weiss

Home / Family / To Make Kids Say “Sorry”… Or Not To? Written by Shara Lawrence-Weiss

Most of us have probably been victim to a rock in the head, tossed by a toddler…or a kick in the shin delivered by a temperamental two-year-old.  You’ve probably attended a park outing or play date at which someone was hurt and no “sorry” was delivered.  This can be an angering and frustrating experience for the parent of the child who was hurt.  Why wasn’t some kind of remorse demonstrated?  Why did the aggressive kiddo get away with that behavior?

Many of us were raised by mama’s or daddy’s who forced a “sorry!” every time we did something wrong.  While research doesn’t imply that saying sorry is detrimental to our upbringing, some parenting experts believe there’s an even better way.

I recently asked a few mothers, “Do you make your kids say sorry?”  Here are two of the replies:

Yes, we always make our kids say sorry if they have done something wrong and if they refuse they sit in time out til they can.  Also, it has to be a heartfelt sorry — not a snotty or sarcastic one.  When other kids hurt them and say sorry, we teach them to say “thank you” not “that’s ok.”  Our kids are 5, 8, and 11.

–       Nicole

Yes, using good manners, respecting others is required at my house. I try to enforce it as much as possible and try to make sure I practice it at all times.  I try to tell my children often that you EARN respect by showing respect and using good manners.  I rarely have to discipline them on this, but if I do I usually remove one of their privileges.

–       Suzanne

Here is another perspective, offered by Wendy from Kidlutions:

There are prisons full of folks who said sorry….sorry, sorry, sorry….but never meant it and never changed a thing.  I think sometimes we all over-think things…because the bottom line is that having caring, loving parents to whom we are securely attached to and by whom we feel we are treasured by, makes all the difference.  And basically hanging in there with them when the going is tough and just NEVER, EVER giving up.  Tough kids need different tools…and really tough kids need even stronger tools.  Love conquers all though, I’ve seen it.

I was raised in a home where we were forced to say “I’m sorry,” and I turned out pretty okay.  However, my husband and I have not followed this generally accepted practice with our own three kids.  We always said sorry to each other, to the kids, and to others if we were in the wrong.  I’m pleased to say that all of my kids are very kind towards others and naturally learned to say sorry on their own.

I think this is a controversial issue for parents…no question about it….it’s drilled into our heads…and we just think that it is the only way to raise ethical, caring kids…when in effect (in my mind and in the mind of others who have adopted this “side” of the equation) we are sometimes forcing kids to lie….”You tell your sister you are sorry!” (When in fact, Johnny may NOT feel sorry at all.  We don’t get that disconnect. We teach kids not to lie, then make them!)  I have done lots of training around this issue in Early Childhood Education.  Folks I have found tons of ways to encourage empathy, kindness and helping kids make amends.  As I’ve said before…all of my kids…now 11, 14 and 16…say sorry, make amends, CARE about others…and were never forced to say they were sorry.  The concept is very foreign to so many.

Here’s another interesting finding: Sometimes when parents start to transition away from making their kids say they are sorry, and start to focus more on making amends (getting an ice-pack for the injured party, getting them their “lovey” or favorite stuffed animal, or a cool drink of water, etc.) they find that kids will say, “Why can’t I just say I’m sorry! It’s way easier!” And they are right. Saying sorry, whether it’s genuine or not, is pretty quick.  Making amends and being at the service of those we hurt shows that we will make the effort to make it right.

Role Play and Communication!

In our home we role play often.  Prior to reading Wendy’s point-of-view, I did force my kids to say “sorry” when they hurt each other or others.  I have also engaged in role play from my children’s early years – so they have been receiving both aspects: modeled empathy AND a forcing of “sorry.”

Lately I’ve become convinced that my children have learned far more from the role play and communication in our home than from the “sorry’s” they have been made to recite.

Here’s how it may go in our home:

2 year old: “Give me toy! MY toy!

4 year old: “No.  I want it now.  You already had it for eleven minutes.  Now I get it.”

2 year old: SMACK!

4 year old: “Mom! He huuuuurt me! Tell him he is BAD!”

Me: “First of all, I never tell any of you that you are BAD.  Thanks to your Preschool friends for teaching you that one.  Secondly, I am sure we can figure this out.  Samantha – if you had a special toy and wanted to hold it, would you want Jack to take it away from you, without even asking?”

4 year old: “No.”

Me: “So what can you do right now to make him feel better? Can you ask to hold his toy rather than just take it and run away?  He might feel better if you asked him, right? Everyone likes to be asked before something of theirs is taken.”

2 year old: “HAHA!!”

Me: “Whoever said 2 year olds can’t understand things didn’t know a 2 year old.  Jack – please don’t say HAHA!! like that.  It’s not very kind.  You are only going to succeed in making your sister upset and in turn, she won’t want to give you back the toy.”

2 year old: “Okay, mama.”

Me: “So Sammy. Can you please ask Jack nicely to hold his toy.  If he says no, you will need to offer it back.  When he is ready, he’ll share the toy with you. Perhaps he just needs to hold it for a little while longer.  Soon enough, he’ll get tired of that toy and move to something else.  At that point, you may have it without any argument.”

4 year old: “Jack. May I please hold your toy for a few minutes…please?  I really like it.”

2 year old: “Yes, Yeah-Yeah.” {He calls her Yeah-Yeah…probably because she always convinces him to eventually say YEAH to her requests. She is quite clever that way.}

Me: “Jack – it was not okay for you to hit your sister, either.  I understand that she upset you by taking the toy but it’s never okay to hit or hurt others.  Next time, please come and tell me what’s wrong and we’ll work things out.  No hitting needed.”

They both hug each other at this point.

Me: “See?  We don’t have to fight about toys.  There’s always a better way to figure things out. Use your words!  When we talk and understand each other, we can figure anything out calmly.”

Another story:

The other night, Jack hit his sister Sammy and she came crying to me and hugged me saying, “Jack hit me!” My husband said, “Jack!  Say sorry right now!”  I looked at my husband and said, “No – let’s not make him say sorry this time.”  My husband replied, “Um.  WHAT!?  Who are you?  We always make them say sorry!”

I answered, “I’ll explain in a moment.  Hold on, I want to see if this works.”

I called Jack over and said, “Did you hit your sister?” He nodded.  I said, “Was that a nice thing to do?” He said, “No.” Right after that, on his own, he said “Oh!” and ran to his room, got his sister’s favorite stuffed pig, came back, gave that to her, hugged her, smiled and ran away.

No sorry was used here and they worked it out on their own!  Samantha replied, “That was nice of Jack.” I said, “Yes. Yes it was.  He wanted to make you feel better.  I like that!”

Moral: A quick “sorry” is certainly the easier way to go but perhaps the role play and communication is the more effective way to go.  After all, we want our children to understand the feelings of others, to work out conflicts and to make amends when they have done wrong.  A simple “sorry” may not be enough.  Teaching them life skills for communication and empathy will render life long results!  It’s more time consuming and energy draining but most assuredly worth the pay-off.

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