Saying I'm Sorry, Preschool Style

Eliza Clark
May 31, 2009

On their journey from primitive cave-babies to full-fledged, semi-civilized children, our little ones are bound to bend or break just about every social rule in the book. They grab toys, toss sand, push and swat at other kids who are in their way, yowl when crossed, throw food on the floor and generally behave like the little barbarians they can’t help being. As they grow, their offenses become more sophisticated.  Knowingly using bad language (giggling madly all the while), refusing to play with certain children, threatening to dis-invite friends from birthday parties and other crimes and misdemeanors become part of the repertoire.

Kids can’t help but make these sorts of faux pas. How else would they learn?  And so, a large part of a parent’s job is to teach them when they have crossed the line, and how to make amends for their transgressions.  In this essential, endless process, no words are more important than "I’m sorry."

Like please, thank you and you’re welcome, I’m sorry is a cornerstone of the social graces that allow us all to coexist in relative harmony.  This small phrase represents taking responsibility for one’s actions and empathizing with others, neither easy concepts for a preschooler to grasp.  

Indeed, many children learn that they are supposed to say "I’m sorry" before they understand what it should really mean. Here is where parents need to be careful. Insisting that preschoolers parrot the words can be counterproductive. Some children come to believe that simply saying sorry is a magic pass to forgiveness, but we all know the difference between a true apology and an "I’m sorry" muttered with a scowl or petulantly barked as the offender scurries from the room.

Here are a few tips on how to help our little ones learn the fine art of apology:

Taking enough time before saying sorry
Very often, a child who has hurt a friend or flagrantly violated a house rule is just as upset as the person she offended. Demanding an immediate apology when a child is profoundly distraught just doesn’t work. Rather, give your child the time and space (a gentle time out, a hug) to calm down and feel regret before suggesting that she apologize or make amends. If you can show compassion for your upset child, it’s more likely that she’ll be able to feel empathy for her friend's feelings in turn.

Teaching a true apology

Encourage your child to make a full apology rather than simply saying "I'm sorry."  "Why are you sorry?" you might ask.  A preschooler who can tell his brother that he’s "sorry for grabbing your truck and making you cry" really is learning what it means to apologize.

Concrete ways to make amends
Help your child find a concrete way to show her concern rather than insisting on hearing “I’m sorry.”  Little ones understand a hug better than words, and can often come up with lovely, creative ways to express regret and console their friends.  Rather than ask for an apology, ask your little criminal questions like “what can you do to make your friend feel better?” or “what can you do to help fix your mistake?”

Learning from mistakes
Apologies, even the most heartfelt, are not much use when the behavior gets repeated over and over again.  After emotions have cooled and sorry has been said, it is worth helping your child think about how to avoid the same mistake in the future.  Ask him, "What will you do next time when you really really want to call Mama a bad name because she denied you an Oreo five minutes before dinner time?" Wouldn’t we love for the answer to be "I'll say, you’re right, Mama"?  More likely it will be something like "I'll say, Mama, I'm really angry with you because I want that Oreo" -- and that’s all right too.  

Leading by example
Perhaps the most important thing we can do to teach our little ones the importance of saying "I'm sorry" is to use those words regularly ourselves.  It's only Savvy to acknowledge that most parents make mistakes and do things we regret pretty much every day. And as hard as it can be for us to admit our blunders (almost as hard as it is for our children), the myth of parental infallibility cannot last long. Let's show our kids that we have the courage to admit our mistakes and learn from them, and that we respect them enough to tell them "I'm sorry."

From the Parents

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