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Sorry Not Sorry

Picture this. You’re at the park.  A child walks up to your little one and joins in constructing the gravel mountain your child has been diligently working at for 15 minutes.  They make eye contact. Your sweet little angel swats at the joiner, unleashing tears streaming like Niagara Falls from those beautiful round eyes and parents run frantically over to assess the situation.  No hospital visit ensues and as each parent breathes a sigh of relief, now to rectify the situation.  You may be thinking that you’d encourage your child to say “I’m sorry,” and then redirect them to another part of the park.

You may be envisioning a heartfelt, “I’m sorry” followed by a hug as a new friendship emerges. If you’ve joined us here in reality, you know that your child is mad that someone infringed upon their masterful plan and just may not feel like saying, “I’m sorry” or better yet, has already resumed construction despite your parental glares. “Sorry” doesn’t mean much to a young child.  When a child performs a hurtful action and is forced to say, “I’m sorry,” this teaches that whenever they do such a thing, “I’m sorry”gets them off the hook. (Are you thinking of that person you dated years ago who thought this was an acceptable way to live? Ugh!) As parents, we think we’re teaching manners as force our children to say “I’m sorry”after a tumble with a playmate, but as Heather Shumaker writes in her book It’s OK Not To Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids, we’re manufacturing a generation of “hit-and-run drivers!”  Think hit, “Sorry,” run! You may be thinking of a child who loves to say, “I’m sorry!”  They’ve found the apology is the key to freedom from natural consequence.

Doing nothing makes the hurtful actions OK and making a child simply saying, “I’m sorry,” isn’t helpful either, so what’s a parent to do? Try these tips to do your part in raising the “competent and compassionate” child you mean to:

  • Always focus first on the victim.  Hold your child near you while asking the other child if they are OK.
  • Identify emotions and restate the problem. “You must be feeling sad you got hurt. I’m sad you got hurt too.”  “You were angry he was helping you build with the rocks and you hit him.” This not only adds to your child’s emotional vocabulary, but explains to your child how their actions made another child feel. 
  • Involve your child in finding a solution. Ask the other child, “How can we make you feel better?” For nnon-verbalchildren, offer prompted suggestions. “Will a hug make you feel better? Can we get you a bandaid (if you have one!)?”
If you’re still inclined to encourage the use of “I’m sorry,” make sure that this is in part with the action step of making the child “feel better.”  Remember, punishment strains the relationship between parent and child, but solving a problem together and following through with action strengthens it.   Read more about this topic in the 2010 article What to Say to Little Kids Instead of “Say Sorry” for some extra real life examples and suggestions on navigating through conflicts between the littles we love. 
Carissa Orr
Author: Carissa Orr

Early Childhood Professional, “Music with Ms. Carissa,” Mama, and now blogger thanks to MDM! Carissa works as an Early Childhood Consultant for Michigan’s state-funded Preschool Program, the Great Start Readiness Program.  In her spare time, she entertains children and families with live music as part of her Music with Ms. Carissa.  Most importantly, she is “Jack’s Mom” and loves adventuring with her young toddler all around Metro Detroit!