Saying ‘Sorry’

a child crying while playing with his brother

‘Sorry’ is probably one of the first words we teach our toddlers…but have we ever really stopped to consider what this word means, both to us and our children?  Is it helpful? What are they learning about relationships from this word? Is ‘sorry’ a helpful discipline tool and if so, in what way and in what circumstances? This article will try to unpick some of these issues and work out how best to use ‘sorry’ to teach, guide and correct our children, along with some thoughts on when ‘sorry’ is unhelpful.

What does ‘sorry’ actually mean?

Such a small word with so many different possible meanings. Very young children will simply hear the sound of the word and work out the meaning from the surrounding context. They will learn the meaning you teach them. The issue is that there are different meanings which are subtly but importantly different.  Firstly, it could mean: ‘pulling your hair was wrong and I accept that’. They have understood that they have crossed a behavioural boundary, done something ‘naughty’ that they shouldn’t do. Using the word ‘sorry’ is their acceptance of this. However it could mean: ‘I understand that you have been hurt by what I just did, I can put myself in your shoes and understand what that was like from your perspective, I am therefore sorry for the pain I have caused’. Alternatively for a child it might mean ‘this is a word I have been told I need to say before I can carry on playing, it doesn’t mean anything to me, but I know if I say it my life can carry on’. 

Why does this matter?

The first of these is a very simple understanding that a boundary has been crossed, but the second requires something far more sophisticated – empathy.  The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what the world is like from their perspective. This depends on a vital developmental step called the ‘theory of mind’. This only develops from the age of about 3, and the ability to empathize normally only develops between the ages of 3 and 5 and sometimes takes much longer. So expecting a 3-year-old to say ‘sorry’ and mean what an adult would mean – ‘I understand what that felt like for you and regret what I did – is unrealistic. If parents insist on young children using the word sorry like this, then the exercise is pretty meaningless for that child. What the child will learn is that they just have to say the word ‘sorry’ without any meaning attached in order to carry on with their day. Their heart won’t be in it.  As they grow older they may…or may not…learn to add other deeper meanings to this word. The risk is that parents or carers then become frustrated with the child ‘not caring’ or ‘not meaning it when they say sorry. What has really happened is that the child just isn’t developmentally ready to understand all the concepts loaded onto this little word. For very little children or those who are delayed in their development of empathy, a better strategy is to help them develop empathy and theory of mind by playing, modeling it to them, and talking about it in a non-judgmental way – rather than insisting on apologies.

Is it helpful to expect children to apologise at all?

I think this depends on how parents and carers approach the issue.  Imagine a scenario: a 3-year-old has deliberately pushed over another 3-year-old who has banged their knee and is crying. The pushy child carried on playing as if nothing has happened at all.  If a parent marches up to the pushy child, and crossly insists on them ‘saying sorry right now’, that is not helpful. The word ‘sorry’ isn’t connected with any feelings of regret, or even an understanding that they have caused any hurt. The context isn’t going to teach them that ‘sorry’ has any meaning other than ‘it is a word I have to say because Mummy is cross with me. Much better to get the pushy child’s attention, and then gently point out that that little Tyler is crying and wonder why that might be, then point to his knee and explain how it got to be painful. Saying too little Tyler ‘oh dear, I am sorry your knee is hurting’ demonstrates empathy so that perhaps next time there is more understanding. 



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