Toddlers Should Say Sorry Even if They Don’t Mean It

todder sand boxSometimes when I used to hang out at the sand box with my toddler, something strange would happen. A little sprog would grab another sprog's shovel. There would be hitting and crying. Both parents (or babysitters, as the case may be) would jump up in to restore peace in our time. But no one would say, "I'm sorry."

This is something new to me. Apparently there's a philosophy out there that you shouldn't force kids to say "I'm sorry" if they don't really mean it. And let's face it, when you do get a toddler to say "I'm sorry," they rarely mean it. They might as well be saying, "At the sound of the tone, the time will be 4:57." But here's the thing -- I think a toddler should be taught to say "I'm sorry" anyway, even if it's an insincere apology.


A toddler is just barely learning about empathy. They kind of get the idea that their actions can affect someone else's feelings, but just barely. Remorse, on the other hand, is a little more complex. That's not just "I made someone feel bad." That's "I made someone feel bad and I regret doing so." In between all those ideas are a whole bunch of other thoughts swirling around a toddler's head, such as:

  • But that was MY shovel that kid had!
  • And I wanted it BACK!
  • And he scared me when he started screaming!
  • And also I'm hungry and want more fishy crackers!

When I was knee-deep in the toddler years, I felt like it was a major accomplishment if I could just get my son to recognize that he was responsible for his actions, and that his actions could affect other people. And key to that understanding that, after a problem with another child, was getting him to stop, look at the other kid for a moment, and say a special phrase: "I'm sorry."

Was he really sorry? Hell no. Does it matter? It does now that he's older, but when he was 2 years old, it didn't. We were taking baby steps together. You have to understand that you can hurt someone, and that hurting people is bad, before you can feel sorry. And saying "sorry," even if you don't mean it, is an important bit of social grace that helps everyone in a conflict move on.

But what about kids who think just blurting out "I'm sorry" is a social band-aid that gets them out of trouble? That's something they can learn later on. My "toddler" is now a second-grader who occasionally gets into big-kid conflicts. He recently teased a friend of his, which made her very angry. It took a few days for them to sort it all out. "But I said I was sorry," he said. "Twice!" This was an opportunity for him to learn the importance of a sincere apology and the patience to wait for forgiveness -- and at 7, he was finally ready for that lesson.

But in the meantime, I'm glad at least he had the good sense to say "I'm sorry."

Do you make your toddler say "I'm sorry" even if they don't mean it?


Image via abbybatchelder/Flickr

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