Teach Kids When and Why They Should Say Sorry

Parents Should Use Opportunity to Teach 'Why' and Good Behavior

African American mother disciplining daughter

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Many child experts agree that children shouldn't be forced to say "sorry" when they do something wrong. However, that does not mean kids should be let off for bad behavior. Adults should take the opportunity to teach kids about why their behavior was wrong and learn about good manners at the same time. Forcing a young child to say sorry after he bites or hits another child, for example, simply forces a lame, insincere "sorry" statement without changing any behavior. So, what should parents and providers do in these situations?

Use Bad Behavior as a Teachable Moment

Experts have many different opinions, but in general agree that getting the child to think about what they have done wrong, why it was wrong, and the impact the bad behavior had on the other child is the best way to approach the situation. After giving the child time to think about their actions, ask them what they can do about it to make the situation right.

Your child may suggest that they give the toy back that they took. If your child states that they want to say sorry or ask to give the other child a hug, then allow those actions because it was their idea. It will be more meaningful and heartfelt if it was their own idea. Saying "sorry" should not be thrown away entirely. Getting kids to just say the words, without understanding the meaning or how to help fix the problem does not solve the bigger issue.

Label the Behavior as Wrong

Parents and providers should plainly spell out to the child that the behavior was wrong. In doing so, you are teaching the lesson that biting, hitting and stealing toys is not appropriate behavior and is not acceptable. If you ignore the behavior, you are reinforcing to your child that bad behavior does not really matter and will not necessarily have any negative consequences.

Model Good Behavior

Sometimes children do not know how to make the situation better so as parents, you can demonstrate a better response. It is important for parents to model good behaviors and teach kids how to deal with sticky situations. You want to empower your child to see himself as a generous person who can make things better when he has done something wrong or hurtful. Many young children will not be able to find the right words until this situation happens many times and they are coached by parents on the way to approach another child. You can help your child by saying "We are so sorry that you were sad when Joe took your toy; he forgot to use his words. We are so happy you feel better now." Children learn from adults how to repair relationships. It is important to teach kids that relationships have ruptures and repairs.

Talk About Feelings

By preschool age, kids are beginning to learn about empathy. When a child learns that his actions caused another child to feel sad or mad, it can have a greater impact than just "getting in trouble." Adults' role should be to help a child to understand, first, that his actions caused another child to get hurt (either physically or emotionally), and then, begin the process of having a child accept responsibility and feel accountable for his own actions.

Be Consistent with Childcare Providers About Reason for Saying "Sorry"

Consistent discipline lets a child better understand that there are rules and when the rules are broken, there are consistent consequences. If you have a nanny, decide on an approach to discipline together. If your child is in daycare or preschool, ask what their approach is when a child behaves in a way that is not acceptable. Parents and childcare providers should be communicating the same message to children about their behaviors. Good communication is a way to help a child on the path to understanding the reason behind feeling the way he does. 

Remember to Show Love

Never let a child feel unloved for doing something wrong. Remember the old adage of, "I love you; just not your behavior." When a child does a behavior you do not like, say something like "I do not like that you took the toy car when your brother was playing it with. We do not take toys from others without asking. Your brother is sad, how can we help him?" Forced apologies don't really change behavior (in children or adults) and only make the child feel shameful and angry. The best thing to do is to get your child to acknowledge what their wrong has done and help them figure out how to make changes.

By Robin McClure
 Robin McClure is a public school administrator and author of 6 parenting books.