Don’t Make Kids Say “I’m Sorry” ...Here’s What to Do Instead

Photo by  Janko Ferlič  on  Unsplash

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Let’s pretend Sam is your 5-year-old.  She repeatedly splashes a kid in his face while at the beach and the child runs crying to his parent. What do you do?

If you’re like 99.9% of the other parents in the world, you automatically say something like “Sam, it is not okay to splash people in the face!” and tell little Sam that she needs to apologize to the child.  You might walk her over to the child and have her mumble “Sorry” while you apologize to the parent and check to see if the child is okay.

It is this intuitive, gut-reaction weird thing we do as parents (and often as teachers or therapists working with children): we simply demand that children apologize after they have hurt someone or hurt someone’s feelings.

Has this ever happened and you leave feeling like you didn’t really teach your child the deeper meaning of being sorry, of having empathy for another person?

Me too.  It always feels empty and meaningless really.  And honestly, we're making our kids lie...most of the time they are NOT really sorry. :)  They just want to be excused to keep playing.

Of course, we all want to model kindness and empathy for our young children and teach them how to apologize.  So here’s a better way:

Recently I was chatting with a friend and colleague, Erika Englund, who is a fantastic transitional kindergarten teacher at Leconte Elementary, a public school in Berkeley where all of my children have gone to elementary school. She shared her solution to the “Say I’m Sorry” dilemma all of us find ourselves in as parents…& teachers….& therapists.

First, she teaches the children in her classroom to state specifics and vocalize their feelings to express being hurt or uncomfortable.  They are taught to say something ilke: “When you _____, I felt _____.”

For example, a child might say, “When you took the ball from me, I felt mad.” (or sad/angry/etc.)”

Then...and this is the MAGIC part!...the children are taught to respond to their peer’s expression of feelings NOT by saying a quick “sorry” but with a response that encourages problem-solving and restoration of the relationship.

The other child might respond with:

“What can I do to make you feel better?”


“What can I do to help?”


“What do you need right now?”

I simply love this approach.  It gives us adults a “rubric” of sorts to follow in order to help our kids have compassion, learn to listen to others, solve problems, and resolve conflict peacefully.  Younger children will need us to model the process for them, but even very young kids can learn that the kind response when a peer is hurt is to ask how you can help them...not just saying “sorry” and walking away.

If your child needs some extra work on social skills, Outdoor Kids OT is here to help.  Check out our Con-T-GO Kids OT Groups here.  Not ready to join a group? Join our email list to get our best OT tips to help you raise coordinated, confident, calm, and caring kids...and you'll be the very first to know about our future programs!

Laura Figueroa