I’m sorry, but I believe in “sorry!”

In yesterday’s guest post on the Mabel’s Labels blog, psychotherapist and parenting expert Alyson Schafer discussed her views on forcing children to say “I’m sorry,” after an incident. She feels that making your child simply say the words creates a power struggle and invites a sarcastic, “I’m saaawry.”

I encountered this view at a highly-regarded child care centre where I did a university placement and it didn’t sit right with me there either. We weren’t really given an explanation at that time beyond, “It teaches children to lie to get out of trouble,” without any insight as to what to do instead, which cemented my dislike of the policy.

Alyson Schafer gives a much better explanation than that in her post and I agree with all of her recommendations of “what to do instead” – but instead of “instead” I would do them “as well.”

I talked briefly about apologies in my post on empathy and compassion and described what we are teaching Ben and Molly to do when someone has been hurt.

Today I was faced with exactly the sort of situation Schafer is talking about: Molly shoved a broom I had asked her to put away, hitting Ben on the forehead. Ben cried and Molly ran away when I asked her to apologize. Chaos ensued as Ben, feeling better, started to chase her, I told him to stand still and let me handle it, etc., and finally Molly returned, said a grudging, “Sowwy,” and made a break for it again. This was the teachable moment – I could have accepted the lip service and ended it there, but I chose not to.

I showed Molly the red mark on Ben’s head and said that she needed to find out if Ben was okay and if there was anything she could do to help. Molly said, “Are you okay Ben?” and he said, “Yes, I’m okay now.” Molly said, “I’m sorry,” this time meaning it, and they hugged and Ben said, “I forgive you.” Molly said, “Can I do anything?”, Ben replied, “Well, I could use some ice,” and they ran off together to get an ice pack from the freezer.

So yes, Alyson Schafer is right – if I had simply required Molly to utter the words, “I’m sorry,” and left it at that, Molly would have taken away from the experience the understanding that saying, “Sawwwry!” is a magical get-out-of-jail-free card. By not letting her off the hook there and delving deeper into the meaning behind the words, I encouraged a moment of healing and connection for both Ben and Molly that taught them the power of apology, reparation, and forgiveness.

“Sorry” is just a word, but it is a word that has deep meaning in our society, and apology is a two-way street. When I make my child say the words, whether they mean it or not, it eases the other person’s pain. By switching the focus to the other person’s feelings, I help my child understand that impact and make the interaction doubly meaningful this time and in future.


Gratuitous adorable picture of kids in Halloween costumes: “I’m sorry I tried to eat you, Molly!” “That’s okay Ben – I’m sorry I’m a strawberry and you’re a carnivore!”
©PicklesINK 2012

~ karyn

What do you think? When we make a child say “sorry” or “thank you” are we teaching them to lie to avoid getting in trouble, or are we teaching them empathy?

15 thoughts on “I’m sorry, but I believe in “sorry!”

    • Thank you! I have always felt that saying “sorry” is not an admission of guilt but simply an acknowledgment that you feel for the other person who is hurting. (and I definitely agree with your dad on “thank you” too!)

  1. Boy, we sure require our boys to say sorry. I think we all know some adults who think they are never wrong and won’t say sorry, even if they know they are in the wrong. Why not train them young that when you make a mistake, this is what you say? Like the commenter above, we also teach them to say sorry when they accidentally hurt someone, because we are teaching them to think of the other person, his/her feelings, and then feel empathy for them that they are hurt.

    We don’t allow a sassy or rude Sorry, of course. Yes, it takes more time to discuss and work through it until they can give a proper apology, but it’s worth it.

    • Thank you! I agree – it is definitely worth it, and putting in that time now will hopefully one day mean better communication skills for my kids at school, at work, and in adult relationships!

  2. Great post, and important message to teach and model. It’s refreshing to learn that I’m not alone in my apology routine. An “I’m sorry” that comes from a real feeling of empathy is so different than the lip service response. Well done, well done. Being a parent is hard and these teachable moments come often and need the proper attention. I really enjoyed your post and look forward to reading more.

    • Thank you! It’s nice to hear from other moms who have similar feelings and similar views. A friend of mine told me after this post that she had tried it with her grade 1 class with great results too!

  3. What a great way to handle a difficult situation. I think this is applicable for us as adults too–so often “I’m sorry” gets diluted or twisted by a defensive “but” where we then explain how while we’re sorry, it was really the other person’s fault. When I was in my early twenties, I had the revelation that if you simply say, “I was wrong, I’m sorry,” it’s much more effective than some kind of deflecting. Your kids are lucky to learn this lesson early!

    • Thank you so much! We try very hard as parents to model this too with our kids and with each other (though I have to admit that defensiveness sometimes kicks in in adult conversations!). You’re right – I think so many issues between adults could be solved so easily with a heartfelt “I’m sorry” – sometimes all you need is for someone to acknowledge your pain instead of making excuses.

  4. I agree with you 100%. We do the same thing. I tell the kids to “say it nicely without an attitude.” I dont think its teaching them to lie, its teaching them to show respect and kindness even if they don’t feel it. Let’s face it, even as adults we have to choose to act right when we dont feel like it. Can you imagine a world where everyone acted according to their feelings all the time?

    • Lol – half the time I feel like that’s the world we live in! But seriously, you’re absolutely right – it’s just like “please” and “thank you.” The world wouldn’t grind to a halt if we didn’t say them, but it sure makes it a more pleasant place to be!

  5. You are so right! I think it is so important to teach our kids that they need to take responsibility for their actions. If you do something wrong, BE sorry and SAY so. I think the “being” sorry that someone was hurt is the most important lesson you are talking about. (Found you on Honest Moms)

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