How to talk to children about... ‘I’m sorry’ and apologising

Elzbieta Lozinska

Working in a nursery school I often face the dilemma: should we force children to say ‘I’m sorry’? I myself feel awkward when (as a rule because of lack of time) I do not explain what the conflict between children is about but I say, ‘apologise to one another’, because actually I do not know how quickly and sensible I should react. I remember my childhood, how I had to apologise, with a strong feeling of injustice, to someone when it was not my fault, and I remember how I did not like that very much. Now I can see that I do the same with my pupils.
A nursery school teacher from Opole

I’M SORRY, PLEASE, THANK YOU – these are three magical words. Children can usually feel that ‘I’m sorry’ is a phrase that – like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ – is said in definite circumstances but they do not understand completely the importance and deeper meaning of the content concerning apologising, which actually mean ‘forgive me’ and ‘I’m sorry.’ I will try to say briefly how to teach children to apologise to one another in a conscious and meaningful way.
Firstly, we should apologise to children ourselves. Commencing with little things when e.g. passing we bump into someone (we give up the message ‘do not come into the way’ or ‘watch how you walk!’ (we give up such sentences as ‘don’t get under foot’ or ‘watch out!’) and ending with unfair punishment, inadequate irritation or raising voice, suspecting of something, etc. Secondly, when a child learns speaking, speak for it or teach him/her a gesture expressing ‘sorry’ (e.g. nodding, hugging). Thirdly, when a child apologises spontaneously and adequately to the situation accept its apology, praise and hug the child (I am happy you know how to say ‘I’m sorry’). Fourthly, when a child happens to apologise for something it is not to be blamed for, say ‘Dear, do not apologise. I know it was not your fault’). Fifthly, when a child does not apologise when it should, say ‘We should hear something from you’, and instruct the child, e.g. ‘Chris should hear your saying ‘sorry’, make a comment, ‘I hope you will say ‘sorry’ to each other and stop doing that any more’. Do not force the child to say ‘sorry’ when the child does not think about it and does not show regrets. Then a comment on the child’s behaviour, stating the boundary and showing the consequences of bad behaviour are enough. Sixthly, when a child overuses the word ‘I’m sorry’, apologising for faults but still does the same bad things, remind the child that ‘I’m sorry’ means ‘I will not do it again.’ Emphasize that ‘I’m sorry’ means ‘I feel sorry’ but apparently you do not feel sorry enough because you do it over and over again.’ Do not accept the child’s apology if it is not accompanied by a change of behaviour but continue saying, ‘I expect you to stop doing that and not only your apology.’ Seventhly, give a testimony to your child: apologising in marriage, family, social situations that the child has seen.
Summing up, first an adult and then a child admits what was wrong. Next situations should show us whether the child regrets about doing wrong. Make a deal with the child that it will not do it again. Children learn to admit what they have done wrong (children are never punished for what they have admitted, they possibly bear the consequences, e.g. clean the mess, buy what they have broken, repair what they have destroyed, etc.) Admittance is accompanied by apology and when needed suggesting some form of recompense. If there is no regret and admittance, forcing children to say ‘I’m sorry’ has no sense. Then it is better to give up, commenting, ‘I’m sorry that you cannot see (cannot feel) the wrong things you have done. Think about it! Someone is waiting for your apology.’ Most of us know people around us who have troubles admitting their mistakes and apologising sincerely and they often make others feel guilty and masterfully force others to apologise to them. The reason for that is often hidden in their childhood. Therefore, let us be wise educators who help to build healthy attitudes towards ‘I’m sorry’ and apologising.

"Niedziela" 9/2010

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: