Teaching kids to say sorry shouldn’t include forced apologies—even if done with good intentions. Here’s why forcing kids to say sorry isn’t a good idea.
My toddler wasn’t in the best of moods. It was one of those, “Let me whine about the littlest things” days. He and his dad were rough housing when he hit his dad with a plastic toy. Right away the air changed from giddiness to tension, and my son was in no mood to be schooled.
Still, I knelt down to my toddler’s eye level and said, “We don’t hit other people.” Okay, so far so good. “Daddy got sad and hurt when you hit him,” I continued. Then I told him, “Say ‘I’m sorry’.”
“I’m sorry,” my toddler replied between tears. I doubt he even knew what “sorry” meant, because clearly he wasn’t. A few minutes later he ran after his dad and smacked him again with his hand.
Insert a few parenting mishaps here and toddler crying there, and you get an idea of how the rest of the evening went.
Why forcing kids to say sorry isn’t a good idea
When the day ended, my husband and I talked about what happened and what we could’ve done instead. We agreed that forcing him to say “I’m sorry” was a bad idea. Here’s why:
A forced apology isn’t genuine
We sometimes force kids to say “sorry” to teach manners. After all, when you hurt someone, you express your grief at having done so by saying sorry. I want to raise a polite boy. The kind who respects others, asks for things politely, and yes, apologizes for mistakes.
Except saying sorry only works when you mean it. And when you know what it even means.
Just as kids shouldn’t be forced to share, you shouldn’t fore your child to say sorry. A true apology lies is a child’s own initiative or understanding of the hurt the other person might feel.
Sure, sometimes we feel compelled to tell our kids to say sorry depending on severity. Playing with the curtains or flinging food on the floor don’t warrant stern discipline, but something like hitting your dad does.
But telling kids to say sorry before they feel remorse makes them say things that aren’t truthful for them. It forces them to admit a feeling they don’t agree with or understand.
A forced apology makes your child feel ashamed or confused
Forcing your child to say sorry might also make him feel ashamed and confused about his feelings. Already guilt-ridden, kids may feel like they’ve lost support when forced to apologize.
It’s easy for kids to tie their behavior to their self-worth. They feel like they’re a bad person, instead of a person who did a bad thing. Forcing an apology only makes it worse because they feel reprimanded for who they are, not what they did.
Your child doesn’t learn anything important
Forcing your child to say sorry slaps an immediate resolution to the conflict. You’re not able to learn why he got frustrated in the first place, or what he could’ve done instead.
The more he’s able to identify what triggers him to misbehave (was he upset? feeling ignored? tired?), the more he can find other alternatives to hitting (like saying “I’m mad!”).
Teaching kids to say sorry
Even though we shouldn’t force kids to say sorry, that also doesn’t mean you can’t use this opportunity as a learning moment. Rather than forcing kids to say sorry, focus more on encouraging and teaching them genuine ways to do so. Here’s how:
Wait for the right moment
Lay down the rules, but wait until your child is calm before talking about or trying to resolve the incident. Forget about saying anything logical to kids while they’re crying or hysterical. They’re not receptive when their emotions are still too high.
Describe what happened
Wait for your child to calm down, then talk about why he misbehaved. Show empathy: “You seemed upset when you hit your dad…”
With younger kids, you’ll need to fill in and guess most of their emotions. But even doing this exercise will provide the words he’ll need for when he can be more verbal.
Download my PDF, The Power of Empathy, and learn how to prevent power struggles and instead better connect with your kids, all by understanding their perspective. Join my newsletter and get it below—at no cost to you:
Offer appropriate ways to express frustration
Talk about what your child can do instead. For younger kids, fill in the blank: “Maybe when you’re upset, you can say ‘I’m mad’.”
You’re letting him know it’s okay to feel upset, and that he has a right to his feelings. But he needs to find a better way to communicate his emotions.
Brainstorm ways to make the other person feel better
Help your child come up with a solution on how to make it up to the other person. One solution? Suggest an apology. “What can you do to make Daddy feel better? What if you gave him a hug, or told him you’re sorry?”
At this point, your child is calm and realizes he’s hurt someone. He’s even learned a few ways to better express himself. Only then can you encourage him to say sorry as a way to make the other person feel better.
This is still something I’m working on. Just a few days ago I caught myself telling him to say sorry right away without understanding the issue.
And sometimes telling your kids to say sorry is appropriate. If he accidentally steps on someone’s toes, he should say “I’m sorry.” Just as we say “excuse me” if we bumped into someone or “please” when we ask for something.
But during heightened emotions, forcing your child to say sorry isn’t a good idea. A forced apology can make him feel isolated and ashamed. It doesn’t provide an opportunity to learn other alternatives to express frustration. And it denies your child the chance to express remorse all on his own.
Get more tips about your child’s social interactions here:
- How to Stop Siblings from Fighting and Teach Conflict Resolution Instead
- How to Respond to Your Child’s Hurtful Words
- 9 Playground Rules You and Your Kids Should Remember
- Why You Should Always Apologize to Your Child
- Why Kids Shouldn’t Be Forced to Share
How do you handle apologies when your kid has done something wrong? Do you find that forcing your child to say sorry has helped or hindered the situation?