Behavior Management: I’m Sorry


You need to tell her you’re sorry.

No, I won’t.

You have to, you hurt her feelings.


Has anyone ever had this battle? I’m almost willing to bet that nearly every parent and caregiver has come across this scenario more than once. As adults, we feel it’s our moral obligation to have a child apologize to a other when they hurt someone either physically or emotionally. For years, my first instinct was to have the other apologize. I have since changed my view in this after one little girl I was care taking for opened my eyes.

It was a beautiful afternoon last fall. The children were playing outside before lunch and as we got ready to come inside one of the littlest girls got bumped. I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose, it rarely happens with malice. It was likely, in the eyes of the bumper, done because he wanted her to enter the house faster and he was stuck behind her. A little bump would speed up the process. He didn’t bump her to cause injury. Does that make it okay? No, it doesn’t. Down she went. She banged her knee on the padded mats on the floor of our screened porch. No cut, no physical bruise, just a bruised ego. She cried. The other child walked on past to get in line to wash hands.

After checking on the bumped and passing out our beloved frozen “boo boo bear”, I sought out the bumper…who was waiting patiently in line to wash his hands. As I had always done in the past, I brought him back to the scene of the incident, pointed out that someone was hurt and asked him to apologize. He said “no”. I pushed a bit further until an “I’m sorry” was muttered.

Lunch had come and gone by the time the little girl who was bumped found her voice and told the bumper that she was upset with him and didn’t want to play with him. She was angry. He replied “I said I’m sorry!” And her only reply was “Sorry doesn’t make me feel better! My knee hurts!” The little boy looked on in wonder. Wasn’t sorry the magic cure-all phrase? After all, a trusted grownup practically forced him to apologize, it must mean something. He was genuinely confused. I felt awful. I had completely let down both children.

She was right, I’m sorry is NOT the magic spell to make all right in the world. If it was the world would be an entirely different place. We can still be angry or hurt (both emotionally or physically) long after someone says sorry. A forced apology is not sincere because it wasn’t initiated by the child (and surprisingly most children can pickup on an insincere apology) and it did not come from the child’s own problem solving abilities. My approach changed immediately since that incident despite all that I had seen and learned in child care settings and schools for the past 15 years.

Instead of automatically requesting an apology from the child that hurt the other, we specifically work together to problem solve what they could do to make the other child feel better. It is up to the child to decide what he/she feels is appropriate. Perhaps it’s giving their friend a hug, drawing them a picture or giving them a favorite toy. The child is the one that comes up with the ideas and makes the best choice for them. If the child feels remorse and suggests that they apologize (this actually does happen quite frequently with the older kids) they will apologize. This approach provides the tools for the child to figure out their own way to help a friend feel better or improve the situation independently in the future. Creating this tool kit allows the child to think back on other instances where they needed these skills and allows them to make a good choice on their own. Practice makes better (not perfect, nothing is perfect).


3 thoughts on “Behavior Management: I’m Sorry

  1. Thank you for sharing this story! It’s so easy to make sorry become a meaningless word becuase it can be throw around alot. The story you told perfectly described that. I love this line, “this approach provides the tools for the child to figure out their own way to help a friend feel better or improve the situation independently in the future.” It’s perfect! That is exactly what we want, children who can problem solve on their own.

  2. Great post!

    Typically, when they stop feeling angry or emotional about the situation, they do come along and make the right judgement call. I always ask my kids to ask their heart, “What will make me feel lighter?” or “What will bring happiness to myself and those around me?”

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