A mother who sees her son
hit his playmate says, ‘That wasn’t nice. Now tell your friend
you’re sorry” The boy reluctantly mutters, “Sorry” but it’s clear he
feels no remorse. In fact, he probably believes he did nothing
wrong. Young children are egocentric and often focus on fulfilling
their own needs without considering other’s feelings. At times, they
grab, hit, knock over each other’s blocks, say unkind things, and
refuse to share. Parents who don’t want their child to do these
things should set firm limits on inappropriate behavior rather than
coerce him into making insincere apologies.
‘When a child is forced to apologize, and when saying, “I’m sorry,”
is the main consequence for unacceptable behavior, he may decide
that it’s worth hitting other children or knocking over their toys.
All he has to do is apologize afterwards and he may be excused.
Parents often enforce an apology because it’s a quick and easy way
to deal with misbehavior. Yet, parents know that hearing their child
apologize can at times be unsatisfying, particularly if he has done
something dangerous such as throw sand in a playmate’s face. They
may try to talk to their child about his unacceptable action and he
may respond, “But I already said I’m sorry.” However, when they
don’t overemphasize apologies, he can’t so easily “get off the
hook.” He has to find other ways to resolve conflicts.
The real motivation for a child to change his behavior comes not
from the fear of having to apologize, but from the fear of
disappointing and angering his parents and, as he gets older, his
friends. A child who doesn’t want his parents to get angry at him
may apologize on his own for misbehavior. Such an apology comes from
within him and is much more sincere than an apology the he’s forced
Parents may wonder why their child doesn’t make genuine apolo gies
more often. Sometimes he’s too embarrassed or ashamed to admit
wrongdoing and at other times he may not like being put on the spot.
He may deny his actions either because he actually believes it’s
true or because he fears his parents’ reactions and disapproval.
Often, young children have strong feelings of autonomy and resist
doing what their parents want them to do.
When your child hurts another child, focus on setting limits. Rather
than saying, “You hit her, now apologize,” say, “I’m not going to
let you hit her,” or, “You may not want to play with her, but I’m
not going to let you hurt her.” If your child is four or five years
old, have him help remedy a situation: “Since you pushed over your
friend’s blocks, you have to help her put her building back
together.” You can also model considerate behavior by apologizing
for him: “I’m sorry he pushed over your building. He’s going to help
you build it again.”
The older your child gets, the more easily you can discuss angry
feelings with him. Listen to his reasons for misbehavior, no matter
how far-fetched they seem. Before he can offer sincere apologies, he
needs to believe that he can explain his side of a disagreement.
Children (and adults) who feel unheard often defend themselves and,
unless coerced, refuse to apologize even when they know they’re
Since your child imitates your behavior, remember to apologize to
him when you overreact, bump into him, or take him away from play to
rush out for your own reasons. If you apologize whenever the
situation calls for it, he will eventually copy your words and