FIVE STEPS TO TEACHING KIDS TO SAY “I’M SORRY”
We all mess up, sometimes. But apologies are hard — even for adults.
Sometimes “I’m sorry” comes out of your child’s mouth, but the words aren’t genuine and the behavior doesn’t change. Apologies should be about repairing a connection — not about just saying some words. How do we help our kids learn how to say “I’m sorry!” and really mean it?
Here are a few ideas, and some ways to engage with them as a family with songs from “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” that your child already knows and loves!
1. Practice empathy.
A meaningful apology is about really understanding what someone else is feeling — also known as empathy. Practicing empathy helps children understand what an apology is for. One of the best ways to help young children learn empathy is to ask wondering questions about other people’s feelings.
- I wonder how grandma feels when we call and talk to her?
- I saw that your friend was crying when she fell down. I wonder what she was feeling?
- How would you feel if a friend was playing too loudly/unfairly/too rough for you?
2. Think about responsibility.
Understanding empathy leads to understanding and taking responsibility. When we ask our kids to say they’re sorry, what we are truly asking them to do is to take responsibility — to accept that their actions have consequences. The important thing for kids (and adults!) to know about responsibility is that if we do something wrong or hurtful — even if it’s an accident or we didn’t mean to — it’s a problem that we are a part of.
Talking about what it looks like to take responsibility can help young children understand why apologies are important — they are often the first step to making things right.
- Everybody makes mistakes. Let’s talk about what kinds of mistakes we make. (When we say we made a mistake, we are taking responsibility!)
- Why is it important to say, “I made a mistake?”
- What happens if you make a mistake? What about if you make a mistake that hurts someone else?
3. Talk about what happens next.
Once you’re practicing the what and why of apologies, it’s time to think about how to make an apology meaningful. Empathy and responsibility give kids the tools they need to take the next step in making amends. When we know someone feels hurt (empathy) because of something we did or said (responsibility), saying “I’m sorry” isn’t always enough — we need to help make it better if we can. When we offer to help fix the problem, we let other people know we care about them and that we really do want them to feel better.
- Why isn’t saying “I’m sorry” always enough?
- I wonder how we let someone know we are really sorry for our mistake?
- What kinds of things can you do to help when you hurt someone?
- When you feel sad or angry about what someone has done, do you want them to help fix it?
4. Sorry isn’t the right thing to say all the time.
Apologies can be overused, which then makes them less meaningful. Personally, I’m so accustomed to apologizing for anything and everything that I say “I’m sorry!” when someone else bumps into me in the grocery store. Give your kids the knowledge and power to decide when an apology is appropriate, and when it’s not needed.
Practice situations when a person might feel sorry and say it, and when a person doesn’t need to apologize. Having the skills to discern when an apology is necessary will be a lifelong asset, and will give your child a sense of power over their words and actions, which is essential to helping them really mean what they say.
5. Putting it all together.
Practice makes… better skills! When you talk through apology scenarios at home, you might say something like this: “If someone wants you to do something unsafe, you don’t have to say sorry for not doing it. If you accidentally hurt someone, you can remember that being hurt feels bad, and let them know you don’t want them to feel bad. You can tell them, “I’m sorry. I can tell that makes you sad and didn’t mean to hurt you! How can I help?”
Saying you’re sorry and really meaning it can be a difficult skill for children and grown-ups alike. By guiding your child to learn the art of a real apology, you’re investing in their emotional and social wellbeing for a lifetime. And that’s something you’ll never be sorry for!