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Why We Shouldn't Make Young Children Say 'Sorry'

27/03/2016 21:23 | Updated 27 March 2016

All parents want to raise kind, polite and thoughtful children. So, making them say "sorry" when they hurt another child is a given. Surely this is the best way to teach children societal rules and expectations and the best way to ensure they grow into the empathic individuals that all parents would hope for? I disagree, and so does a growing body of experts. Forcing children to say "sorry" can actually lead to them growing to be less kind and thoughtful.

I appreciate this probably sounds 'far out' and frankly quite ridiculous to some of you reading. Why on earth would we not want our children to apologise when they have done something wrong? I'm not disputing this, I am however disputing the way in which we go about achieving it.

Young children have a very underdeveloped 'theory of mind'. In essence this means that they have a hard time understanding the viewpoint of others. They struggle to understand how others are feeling, particularly if it differs from what they themselves are feeling. You might know this as 'empathy'. Empathy is all about standing in somebody else's shoes metaphorically and understanding how they are feeling at any one moment in time. Empathy however is one of the last social skills to develop in children. While some children have distinctly better empathy skills than others, it's reasonable to expect a decent amount of empathy once the child starts school. Toddlers and preschoolers are notoriously lacking in empathy skills though.

Why does empathy matter when it comes to saying "sorry"? Because it implies that the child feels bad for what they have done, and in order to feel bad they have to understand how they have made another feel. For instance, if a toddler hits or bites another toddler at a playgroup, saying "sorry" would imply that they understood that the other child is in pain. Secondly it implies that they regret hurting the other child and wish to make them feel better. If they have poor empathy skills (as is normal for this age) they will not have such a train of thought. In fact, if they bit or hit another child in order to get hold of a toy that they wanted they may in fact believe that the injured child feels happy, as they themselves are happy now that they have the toy. Forcing the child to apologise in this instance doesn't make the child sorry, in fact all it does is force them to lie.

You may ask "so what? They have to learn", but do you really want your child to learn to lie? How do you feel about teaching your child to lie because they know if they say "sorry" (when they are not) that they get out of trouble? In the toddler and preschooler years you may not see the implications of this, but visit any school playground and you will hear an echo of "sorry" around the playground. The chances are most of these are empty and hollow. The children aren't genuinely sorry, they have learnt that saying it gets them out of trouble. Most apologies in this instance sound incredibly insincere, that's because they are. A child fights with another in the school playground. The midday assistant steps in and tells the attacker to "say sorry", the child parrot fashions "sorry" and they are let off. The chances of the child actually being sorry are quite low, they have learnt that lying gets them out of trouble. Would you prefer your child to act in the same manner (to lie to get out of trouble) or actually say "sorry" when they really meant it?

So, if you don't make your child say "sorry", does that mean that you are totally permissive and let the little darling 'get away with everything'? Surely that will raise an even less empathic child? Absolutely! The alternative isn't to just ignore everything, but to approach it from a position that raises empathy without lying. For instance if you are at a playgroup and your child shoves another and makes them cry, the first thing you would do as a parent is to apologise to the child and the child's parent, because the chances are you are genuinely sorry. This is a great role model to your own child. Next, it's time to speak to your own child in a quiet area where you explain, simply, that the other child was crying because it hurt when they were shoved. This is a great way to help develop your child's empathy skills. You can reiterate that they "shouldn't shove but use their voice" if they are upset next time. The chances are they will still shove the next time though, because that's what two and three year olds do, but if you keep repeating this process each time you have a much greater chance of raising a truly empathic child, who sincerely means it when they say "sorry" when they are older. Isn't that what all parents would really prefer?

If this has piqued your interest in an alternative way of raising children check out my new Gentle Parenting Book.

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