I’ve seen it time and time again, and I’m sure you have too… A child darts past another child, knocking over their block structure, yelling an un-empathetic “Sorry!” over their shoulder as they run off to continue their play. Young children are being taught to say “sorry” long before they are actually developmentally capable of feeling sorry for their actions. The act of saying sorry appeases adults because it’s the polite thing to do, but teaching children to say sorry is not the same as teaching our children to be empathetic towards others, and here’s why:
A child develops the ability to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings different than their own around 4-5 years of age; this is know as “theory of mind.” Prior to that, children’s brains are egocentric; the world revolves around them. During the toddler years, kids need to be taught how to respond in social situations because they don’t yet have the understanding that other people can feel differently than they do.
When we teach our kids to say “sorry” as a blanket response, we are teaching them that all their actions have equal impact. Saying “sorry” implies that the child feels regret for what they have done, which most of the time is not the case (and this is completely normal in typical development). By making kids say sorry, we are also teaching them that they don’t need to do anything more to fix whatever it is that they’ve done.
Obviously, we wouldn’t just ignore our children’s negative actions because they are too young to understand what it means to feel sorry. So what can we do instead?
Teach your child to look for emotional cues in others
If my child has hurt another child, I get down on his eye level and stop the behavior immediately. I point out the impact of his actions by saying something like “Look at her face, she is crying. That really hurt her.” By pointing out the other child’s feelings, my child is learning that his actions have real consequences. This is the beginning of my child’s development of theory of mind – the understanding that others have their own feelings.
Teach your child to respond
Then I have my child “check on” the other child by asking them “Are you ok?” This acknowledges that the other child has been hurt, and it is the first step to making amends. If your child has the language skills, teach them to ask the other child, “How can I help?” or “What can I do to make it better?”
Teach your child to take action to help
Finally, I ask my child to take action to help the person they have offended. This looks different depending on the situation. For example, if my child has broken down another child’s block tower, I would ask them to help fix it. If my child were to bite another child, I would make him go get the other child ice and sit with them. Not only is this teaching my child to be more empathetic to others, but it is also teaching important social skills. If my child walks away from this negative situation feeling like he was able to be helpful, to be a good friend, then he will naturally become more motivated to do the right thing next time.
Model saying sorry
Even though I don’t require my child to say “sorry,” I still model saying sorry when it’s appropriate. In the same way that I model saying “please” and “thank you,” I model saying sorry because it is a social skill that children and adults need to be able to do. Children will naturally pick this up once they are old enough to know what it means to feel true empathy…to feel sorry for something they have done. By this time, they will have developed the prosocial skills needed in order to be helpful, kind and gentle to others.