The Underlying Truth about Teaching Children to Say “I’m Sorry”


Nonviolent Communication / Wednesday, November 28th, 2018

All too often do we ask our children to apologize, to say sorry. But how many times do they apologize? How many times do they actually mean it? And even when they do – what good is in it? Here is the true nature of apologizing, and what we should teach our little ones instead.

Should we teach children to apologize? Most parents see this an an absolute must. Children who do not apologize are considered rude, impolite and lacking discipline. And oh my God what this might mean for us parents! This probably means that we are bad parents, right? Well, wrong.
What is the point for a child to blurb out an apologetic sorry, if she will repeat the same action again, without thinking twice?
Apologies are automatic, perfunctorily responses. They are courtesy, they are etiquette, they are tact. As an automatic reply, it will never include a free choice. As such, automatic replies are never mindful. And still, this seems to be one of those automatic replies we’re eager to pass on to our little ones because it is the “right” thing to do when someone is not happy with something we did. But the truth is, that apologies are also a circle of guilt, ping-ponging responsibility for needs from one to the other. Apologies are a price we pay, that doesn’t teach us a thing.  

I don't teach children to say I'm Sorry. This is what I do instead, and why. Because keeping a true connection is always more important than etiquette

Apologizing is Passing the Responsibility On

You’re at the supermarket, pushing your grocery cart while reading this article, when you bump into something and hear an “ouch!”. You raise your head and realize you’ve hit a passerby with your cart. You immediately exclaim “Oh! I’m so so sorry!” and you kind of hope it would make everything right. Most people would just say “it’s okay, don’t worry about it” and both of you would carry on with whatever it is that you were doing. That’s how un-tuned we all got.

But one out of a million people would say “I don’t need your ‘sorry’, it doesn’t help me! Damn, this really hurts!” and this one guy would be right.

Let’s translate this into needs: by hitting him, you undermine his need for safety and protection, immediately sabotaging your need for peace and connection. You know it’s your fault, you take the blame and say “I’m sorry”. But what are you really doing here? You’re passing the responsibility. The ball is now in his court, and it is up to him to meet your needs, by saying “It’s OK, don’t worry about it”. If he does, your needs are met, you’re “ok” again, and you get to walk away without the guilt and the shame. But he is, actually, still in pain.

Your “sorry” met your needs, leaving him with nothing at all.

No More Tantrums

Don’t Apologize, Make Amends

Making amends is taking the needs of the sufferer into account. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have been walking around here with my eyes buried in my phone. Can I bring you a glass of water? Maybe you need a band-aid?” You didn’t pass on the guilt, you took the responsibility and kept it, you offered to meet his needs in alternative ways and most probably – he will be so baffled by your reply he’ll forget he was ever in pain 🙂

Should Parents Apologize to Their Children?

You’re having a very hard day; you’re tired and mentally drained, your needs for peace, quiet, maybe even cleanliness are extremely undermined and you don’t have the longevity for a mindful observation without evaluation.

Your little one is all over the place trying to get your attention in every possible way, throwing toys, asking for an apple then changing her mind and asking for a banana, then to not wanting to eat at all and back to throwing toys when you absolutely lose it and raise your voice demanding her to just leave you alone and go away.

Wow, that hurts. You see your little one’s eyes filling up with tears and you know exactly how hurt she feels by your reaction. Her needs for connection, meaningfulness, love, understanding (and so many others) are sabotaged, the pain is genuine, and so are the tears. What would you fix if you told her you’re sorry?

Apologies don’t Get Needs Met

Let’s skip the sorry. Your first reaction is now to restore and meet all the broken needs. Love, hug, kiss, comfort, as much and long as it takes. Children’s natural inclination is always to restore the connection, so it won’t take very long.

And then, later on, after everything has settled down, maybe at bedtime, tell her how you wish you would have dealt with the situation. Teach her there’s another way, an alternative to the behavior she had seen today. Meet the needs. Make amends.

“You know baby, I wish I would have kept my temper earlier today”. That’s it, no further words or explanations. You’re not putting the burden of forgiveness on her little shoulders, as you didn’t apologize. You are showing her that it’s human and OK to lose our temper; if it happens to mommy it can surely happen to her or anyone else. You teach her how to handle guilt and amend the relationship. You model taking responsibility for your actions and actually doing something to make it better.

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Should Children Be Taught to Apologize?

The other day, my mother in law and I took the little one to the beach. We were all having a great time when he started throwing sand around. I told him how much fun he must be having, how interesting it is to look at the sand splashes, but encouraged him to throw sand in another direction where there are no people as we don’t want to hurt anyone. But, he’s only 2.1 years old, his counter-will was already triggered when he stood there, with his little fists full of sand, and as soon as I spoke out the “no”, he threw all the sand he was holding right into his grandmother’s face.

I held him close and told him that his grandma is in pain now, she has sand in her eyes and that doesn’t feel good. I helped him look at her and see her uncomfortable situation. He looked at her as she stood up and started walking towards the sea to clean her face, he took his little red bucket and ran after her into the water. He filled the bucket up and asked her to kneel down to him so that he could help her clean the sand away.

He understood everything, took responsibility and amended his misbehavior.  He didn’t say sorry; he didn’t need to.

A Warm Update

I initially wrote this article quite a few months ago. My little one is already 2.7 years old, so I’m writing this update over 6 months since the initial account and I can surely say that modeling mindfulness to words and actions pays off in the most rewarding way. Surely I know it from all the wonderful parents I work with though my parent coaching program, but feeling it in your home is, of course, different. Nowadays, as soon as my little one recognizes a reaction that he doesn’t find favorable (a cry, a sad face, a mad voice), he will immediately come to hug and console, return the toy he had taken and AMEND the action for which the feelings of his fellow were hurt. He still doesn’t say sorry. But he does much more than that.   

Most parents teach most children to say sorry. But most children never mean it. This is how you can teach your child to be mindful.

How Can We Make the World We Live in a Better Place?  

The world we live in is not taught the language of needs and feelings, that is Nonviolent Communication. It’s a violent, self-centered world, led by affectation, threats, punishments, and rewards.

We don’t want our children to do anything just because someone told them to. We don’t want them to shoot out automatic responses just because someone, once, told them it is the right thing to do. We want our children to be true to themselves, attuned to their needs and feelings, attuned to the needs and the feelings of those around them. We want their actions to be motivated by connection, rather than disconnection.

We want them to be mindful of everything they do and say, everything that happens around them. For that we’ll need to step away from automatic responses, and take a choice of responsibility.   

Join my Facebook group, where compassion is the only language we speak, and no response is ever automatic 🙂  

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There is no actual value in teaching children to say sorry. Pointless apologies are - pointless. Here's how you can instill real values in your children's perception.

Viki de Lieme

Hi there! Welcome to my home 🙂 I am a mom, a parent educator, a Nonviolent Communication specialist, and attachment parenting advocate. I help children (and their parents) reconnect and find the joy of family life.

4 Replies to “The Underlying Truth about Teaching Children to Say “I’m Sorry””

  1. I love it!! Such an important subject!
    My kids are never forced to apologize, which actually lead too them only apologizing when it comes from the heart. My 7 year old accidentally hit her younger brother – leaving him quite upset. Her reaction was hugging him, gently cuddling him and apologizing because she truly was sorry. In that moment I knew I was doing something right. I can’t tell how many parents I’ve seen forcing their kids to apologize and it hurts my heart every time.

  2. I’m not sure I agree or disagree with this article. Although, apologizing should not be automatic or a means of getting out of a punishment, An apology is admitting you have done something wrong and feel sorry. Right and wrong need to be taught and modeled at all times. There is nothing wrong with explaining to your child what was done, the consequences, and having them own up to their behaviors. At the age of two, the dendrites in the brain are massively declining and this creates a chaotic mind. Making a two year old apologize makes little sense, as they will not understand. However, a four year old should learn that an apology is used to show love and concern for something they may have done wrong. This comes naturally if taught the difference between right and wrong.

    1. I love how you always challenge me Linda 🙂 The key word in your reply is “should” – when teaching mindful apologies – an apology is just as great as amending the deed because usually – the amendment will follow. However, nowadays, most “sorrys” you hear are lip service kids pay to move on with their lives and, probably, repeat the same “wrong” deed again and again. This is why I don’t advocate teaching sorry, and why I choose to teach empathy and compassion, as well as responsibility, instead.

  3. When I taught second grade, I had my students ask the other person, “How can I make this better?” It gave a voice to the victim and the other child got to understand a bit more of how they felt. Now that I have a three year old, I often ask, “Are you okay?” if I make a mistake and bump into him. He now does the same with others. I agree that a forced sorry doesn’t fix things or help the situation, but teaching empathy and learning about other’s perspectives are so helpful.

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