Sorry Not Sorry: Teaching Children Empathy
I watched her little curls frame her focused, neutral face as she sat with her baby doll in the book area. She carefully knelt over the baby, raising a hand slowly and deliberately before bringing it down suddenly, striking the doll in the face. Without missing a beat, she cocked her head, studied the doll, and said “Sorry” in a casual, slightly sing-song voice. I’d hardly picked my jaw off the floor before she raised her hand again and struck the baby a second time, repeating her apology. She repeated this again and again, her face calm and her tone unaffected. It was early in my career as an educator, but I knew as I watched the little girl that she was processing something she’d experienced, something that did not seem to make sense to her.
When I shared my observations with my mentor, she simply shrugged and explained what I have come to learn myself in my years sharing space with infants and toddlers: Just because a child is old enough to say the phrase “I’m sorry” does not mean they understand it.
I feel it’s necessary to clarify two things as I broach this topic. First, I feel children are capable of many things and worthy of dignity, respect and opportunities to grow. They are often more capable than we realize. Second, my feelings about apologies, remorse and taking responsibility for one’s actions align with those of most every adult I interact with daily. There is nothing quite so important as a heartfelt, sincere apology followed by a change in behavior and reparations.
My feelings on this topic diverge from many, however, when I consider how we, as guides to young children, teach this valuable skill. In the case of my little friend above, she was shown (before her second birthday) that when one hurts another, one must say “sorry.” A well-intentioned adult taught her a phrase she was capable of repeating at the appropriate time, but failed to understand that a child so young does not implicitly understand the meaning behind the sentiment. Lacking fully developed empathy, the child is simply repeating an empty phrase, a hollow performance. Forced apologies, though often taught with good intentions, lead to empty words and a missed opportunity for teaching empathy.
Empathy, the ability to put one’s self into the shoes of another and imagine what they must feel, is a skill children develop slowly over time as their own notions of self form. It’s a wonderful thing to learn. Shifting from teaching a particular phrase such as “I’m sorry” to teaching empathy and personal responsibility allows us to foster emotional intelligence in our children.
Developmentally Appropriate Ways to Model Empathy
How do you teach a child the values behind the phrase “I’m sorry” without forcing apologies? Here are some developmentally appropriate steps as we model and build toward true empathy and genuine apologies.
Birth to 18 months: GENTLE TOUCH
In this stage, even the smallest children may inadvertently injure someone. Meeting these occurrences with calm redirection and patience shows children you’re a confident leader and not thrown off course by their behavior. It helps them stay in a calm brain space to see you at the helm.
Take a small hand as it rises to hit and say, “Ouch. Hitting hurts.” Rub a relaxed hand softly on their arm and say “gentle,” or have them share a gentle touch with you.
As toddlers pass the year mark, they begin to experiment with using behavior like hitting or biting to solve problems. Remain their calm guide and be ready physically to prevent this. “I won’t let you hit” is a phrase I like, as it gives a limit and shows unruffled leadership.
Once children show an awareness that hitting and similar behaviors are hurtful, you can likely move to the next phase.
18 months to 3 years: CHECK ON THEIR BODY
During this time, children generally understand that certain behaviors or choices may be hurtful but do not have the emotional maturity or impulse control to curb their behaviors in the moment. When caught, they often show discomfort by hiding, denying their involvement or even smiling. These are all things that trigger us as adults but are simply the responses of a child with an immature brain working through some complex social dynamics. Remain calm and remove your personal offense from their actions. See the child, not just the behavior.
When your child hurts someone at this age, step in and take control of the situation in a collaborative spirit. Describe what you saw. “Ouch. When you threw that block, it hit him. Let’s go check on his body.” Face the situation together and lead the way, modeling how to “make it right.” Ask the injured party how you can help and support your child in meeting that need.
Children this age are often keen on Band-aids and ice packs for their own injuries and can be recruited to collect them for others. Offering help to someone they have wronged helps children see that, while their actions may have hurt someone, they can also help someone. It empowers them to be empathetic problem solvers.
3 years to 5 years: HOW CAN YOU HELP?
Children now begin to understand their own identity and value the identity of their peers. Powered by empathy, true friendships form with give and take. As these interactions become more and more common, so too do small upsets and hurts. Children, while so impressively verbal and capable, are still developing impulse control and striving to understand emotion.
As your preschooler navigates how to handle wronging another, you can now step back a bit and let them troubleshoot the solutions. “I hear crying. Can you tell me what happened?” Encourage both parties to share their feelings and ask questions to promote problem solving. Why did this happen? What would make this better? Lead your child to ask, “How can I help?” and then facilitate them mending the relationship.
By this age, many children will have begun incorporating the phrase “I’m sorry” into these moments. While welcoming the phrase, place a focus on the actions taken to reinforce the meaning behind it.
Finally, it’s worth noting that from birth, a parent can model healthy, sincere apologies to their children. It may feel odd to tell your 6-month-old, “Ouch. I clipped that nail too short. That hurts. I’m sorry,” or to ask a 2-year-old to forgive you for losing your temper. But one of the best ways to show a child how to truly apologize is to show that even adults make mistakes and need to apologize. In the end, our calm, sincere leadership will help our children grow into adults who see their mistakes, take responsibility and make amends.
Alicia is an Early Childhood Educator who works with young toddlers. She finds joy and inspiration to write in their cheeky shenanigans, as well as those of her two daughters.