If a child does something to upset someone else quite often our automatic reaction is to ask them to say ‘sorry’. It’s a natural response as we want them to learn manners and to be civilised human beings. However, if we sit back and think about it, is this really doing them any good?

In a child’s early years, they have a limited ability to feel empathy and are literally the centre of their own world. This therefore means that they quite often struggle to see things from another person’s point of view and won’t truly understand what ‘sorry’ means or be able to say it in a meaningful way. By forcing them to say it, we are simply teaching them that an empty word rectifies their actions and allows them to avoid consequences. It may sound extreme, but it also indirectly teaches them to lie and does the exact opposite of our intention, which was to develop their empathy!

Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ask children to say sorry as this is an important thing to do in life. However, I do think that in a child’s early years, the emphasis should be more on developing their understanding of the situation, so that when they do eventually say ‘sorry’, they will truly understand what that means.

Ultimately, we want children to understand the impact of their actions and to make positive choices. However, in order for them to do this, we have to teach them how.

Instead of insisting that children say ’sorry’, here are 5 alternative options:

Natural consequences
It’s important for children to learn about cause and effect, therefore it is crucial that they learn natural consequences. If a child hits another child with a toy, the natural consequence would be for that toy to be taken away temporarily until they can learn to play with it safely. If a child hits someone, then that child needs to be moved away (not isolated) because the natural consequence is that their friend probably won’t want to be near them for a while. If we come from a place of consequences and teaching, rather than a place of punishment and control, we will give children more opportunities to understand their behaviour and therefore develop their self-awareness and empathy.

Acknowledge feelings
Quite often we only acknowledge the feelings of the child who has been hurt or upset. However, it is important to do the same for the other child too. Have you ever been in a situation where you have felt so frustrated, yet nobody seemed to listen or understand? It is infuriating isn’t it? Well, it is the same for children. Even though their actions may have been wrong, they are still feeling strong emotions. By asking children how they feel you are giving them an opportunity to learn and grow. Behaviour is communication and if we can support children to identify the emotions and situation that have led to their behaviour, we can help them to develop better coping strategies in the future.

Develop empathy
As well as identifying their own feelings, it is also important to ask children how they think their actions might have made the other person feel by asking questions such as:

  • You did [action], how do you think this made [child] feel?
  • How would you feel if somebody did [action] to you?

By asking these questions in a supportive and gentle way, we give children a safe space to explore what has happened and to hopefully see things from a different perspective, which again will develop their empathy.

Find an alternative solution
By giving children the opportunity to think about how they could do things differently in the future, you are planting positive seeds in their minds and supporting them to find an alternative way of coping with their emotions. Give them lots of praise for their response and prompt them if needed with questions like this:

  • If we feel angry inside because someone has taken our toy, what can we do instead of hitting them?
  • Could we ask nicely for it back?
  • Could we tell a grown up?
  • What would you do next time that doesn’t hurt/upset someone?

Model the apology
You can ask children if they want to say sorry but if they choose not, this gives you a great opportunity to model how to do it by apologising on their behalf. If your apology is heartfelt and explains why you are sorry (I am sorry that [child] did [action] and that you are feeling sad) children will see that emotion and care are attached to this word. You can also model apologies when you make a mistake yourself. Even though we are adults, we are still human and make mistakes and it is important to lead by example so that children see it as the norm.

Apologising for your actions is important. However, if there is no meaning or care behind it, the word ‘sorry’ becomes worthless and simply a tool to get away with things. Actions are more important than words. A person can say ‘sorry’ a million times but if their actions never change, the word means nothing. It is important for children to learn to say it, but if we focus more on supporting them to understand and change their actions, when they do eventually say ‘sorry’ it will be heartfelt and for the right reasons.


About the author

Stacey Kelly is a former teacher, a parent to 2 beautiful babies and the founder of Early Years Story Box, which is a subscription website providing children’s storybooks and early years resources. She is passionate about building children’s imagination, creativity and self-belief and about creating awareness of the impact that the Early Years have on a child’s future. Stacey loves her role as a writer, illustrator and public speaker and believes in the power of personal development. She is also on a mission to empower children to live a life full of happiness and fulfilment, which is why she launched the #ThankYouOaky Gratitude Movement.

Sign up to Stacey’s premium membership and use the code PARENTA20 to get 20% off or contact Stacey for an online demo.

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