teaching children to say sorry…good idea?

There is a scene in the movie The Descendants with George Clooney and it went something like this (I’m recalling from memory since I saw this at least a year ago)…

George Clooneys character has a daughter who is maybe 9 or 10. She has been saying some not nice things to a girl at her school and making her cry. The mother of said girl made George and his daughter come to their house to apologize.

‘Sorry’, said his daughter very casually.

She was clearly not sorry for her actions and the girl’s mother complained she didn’t mean her apology.

George shrugged his shoulders. What was he suppose to do? His daughter apologized as asked. He can’t make her mean her words.

photo kid looking downI always think of this story when my daughter is asked by other adults to apologize for her wrongdoings.

Elle. That wasn’t nice.
Say sorry to so and so.
Elle, say sorry.
Elle! Say Sorry!

Most of the time, she ignores them.
Sometimes with enough coercion, she’ll apologize.

I know my daughter is being taught to say sorry with all the best intentions. They are teaching her to be polite and to be empathic.

Politeness is insincere most of the time. – Jesh de Rox

They really do have her best interest at heart however, she’s apologizing because she is being forced, to please the adult or to avoid punishment.

photo of kid with closed lipThis situation has happened on a few occasions and it bothers me. Really bothers me.

There are a number of articles written by experts regarding this issue. Here are 3 reasons why I don’t think it’s a good idea to teach my children to say sorry:

  1. My daughter is being taught to say things that are not from her heart, to say things she does’t mean (is this the definition of lying?)
  2. She is being taught insincerity is valued over genuineness
  3. She is being taught to say things she doesn’t mean to please others (and perhaps she might feel she needs to please others to be loved)

These messages makes me uncomfortable and I will not ask my children to apologize.

Instead, this is what I will teach my children:

  • I will teach them behaviours that are acceptable and practice positive behaviours
  • I will teach them empathy and how their actions affect others
  • I will give them space to think about the situation and ask them to suggest ways to make the situation better
  • I will empower them to make healthy choices
  • I will lead by example and show them how to amend wrongdoings

children hugging each other
It’ll take a lot of work and patience to teach my children these things. It’ll probably take many teaching moments for them to learn empathy and come up with their own ways to correct wrongdoings. However they decide to remedy situations would be their choice – not because someone made them do it.

Stephanie Lindsey -

This is awesome! Teach your children to mean what they say, not say what you want them to mean.

Renee Bell -


Michelle Posey -

It’s funny seeing this today, because we had something happen just yesterday while the boys were playing with their cousin. Cousin hit them with a stick and it was obvious he hadn’t meant to hurt them and was very sorry. His mom insisted that he actually say the words “I’m sorry,” which was really hard for him since he was crying so hard because he was BEING sorry. I don’t think insisting on the apology helped anything.

Kerrie Mendoza -

Beautifully written. So important I think. We do teach our boys to say sorry, but as they get older I want to make sure they understand its meaning an implications.

Heather Lynn -

love this!

Allison Flannagan -

Totally agree with these ideas…

Carolyn Leanne Béchard -

Hmmm I never really thought about it, but you make some excellent points Amy. I guess my only question would be what is then done if the child is NOT sorry or doesn’t seem to care on the slightest. Do we let them go back to what they were doing or do they get a real consequence for their actions like time out?

Daniela Duriavig -

hmmm… lots of food for thought here. I agree that a meaningless “sorry” is, well, meaningless! but I do think it’s important to teach kids to acknowledge how they have affected another person. I guess balance is the key.

Ibukun Omole Sacco -

Everytime my son tells me he is sorry, I ask him two questions; why and what for. This allows me to see his processing pattern and assess whether or not he is empathetic and sincere.

Margarita Ibbott -

Always interesting how others teach their kids to ‘walk in the world’ I always think I am not bring up children but directing future adults. Post is food for thought. Thanks

Heather Lynn -

I just read this again. I still love it. A lot. The end.

Monko Taming -

This is an excellent post. This is how I feel about saying sorry too. I do sometimes prompt my son to say sorry now that he is a little older (4 years old) but only after asking him if he meant to upset/hurt the person involved. One problem is that children start to think that saying sorry fixes everything, and it really doesn’t. I’m sharing this post on the Sunday Parenting Party on Sunday – along with your other excellent post on how to speak to children.