Should You Force A Child to Say I’m Sorry?

Posted By:

Does teaching a child to say “I’m sorry” fall into the category of “Good Manners,” — the same as “Please” and “Thank you?”  Should parents prompt their progeny every time they make an offense – large and small? Or does apologizing fall into a more nuanced category – one that’s more about teaching empathy and less about enforcing the use of those exact words? We sought the wisdom of child development experts, Susan Stiffelman and Lauri Berkenkamp to get their takes on this issue. The debate continues at The Mother Company and we’re not sorry about that! It’s what we’re all about. Where do you stand?  — Laurel Moglen, Web Content Producer


The short answer is yes, kids should definitely say “I’m sorry” – but only when they’re ready.

I don’t think 3 and 4 year olds are too young to learn to say I’m sorry, but you certainly can’t expect them to mean it. Instead, they are modeling behavior that will eventually become meaningful. Since teaching moments only work when the subject is receptive to them, it doesn’t make any sense to force a preschooler to say, “I’m sorry” when she is in the midst of an emotionally charged altercation. Not only is she absolutely NOT sorry, she’s going to feel backed into a corner with no one on her side, especially if the parent forces it.

In that situation, no learning can happen. I think parents tend to feel really embarrassed when their kids have altercations with others,and they want to make it right–which in the adult world would be to apologize and move on–but the right thing to do for very young kids is to stop the escalation and defuse the situation. Allow the child to calm down and feel okay again. Then the parent can model a way for the child to apologize appropriately. There doesn’t need to be (and shouldn’t be) a huge explanation about why it has to happen or how sad the other kid is, etc. Just tell your child what your expectations are (“I’d like you to say sorry to Molly”), then reward the good behavior with praise (“I knew you could say sorry. I’m proud of you.”). If the child is still too fragile to say sorry without bursting into tears or re-living the whole incident, then let it go this time, and work on it again later.

As far as five and six year olds go,the same rules apply: if the kids are so emotionally invested in the moment that they can’t get past it, let them step back and regroup before stating your expectations for behavior. Usually kids this age are emotionally able to step back and cool down quickly enough that they can (and should) be able to say a simple “I’m sorry” to another child without too much time passing. Kids in kindergarten and first grade are generally pretty aware of the social dynamics around them, and usually will apologize readily if given a little space.

I think it’s important that parents of young children (or kids of any age, really) remember that manners are just good habits practiced over time–nothing more. Instilling good habits in your kids is really a matter of perseverance and positive reinforcement–basically, repetition and reward. Kids learn to say thank you not because they are thankful (what preschooler thinks about anyone but herself?), but because whenever they are given something, their parent says, “Now what do you say?” and they repeat it. And pretty soon it becomes automatic. Modeling the behavior you want your kids to have is the secret key, and the more you model appropriate responses, the more they will too.

I have found that turning learning good manners into games can go a long way toward quick learning. If you can make learning manners fun, your kids will enjoy it much more.


In general, forcing a child to say “I’m sorry” is not the best approach.

Rather, I encourage parents to look beneath the incident – try to get to the bottom of why it occurred. I tend to think parents overuse the term “I’m sorry” when they forcing their kids into saying words they may not mean. Many parents are comforted when their child says, “I’m sorry,” as if saying those two words are enough. They aren’t. Instead, I like to have parents see the conflict as an opportunity to create empathy in their children. Once they’ve calmed down, let down their guard down and aren’t caught up in defending themselves, parents can help their youngster and visit the planet where the other kid is. The child needs time to imagine how the other child lives. A parent can say, “Look, when you bit your brother it hurt him. When you make a choice to cause pain to someone you care about, we have a problem. What’s another choice?”

Grown-ups, not just children, tend to believe their own story is the true one. If we let kids off the hook by having them spit out words they don’t mean, we are encouraging them to lie, and missing a golden opportunity to teach empathy.

Eventually, I like the idea of having the child make amends. Ask him to think of something to do that represents his best self, like making a card or offering a foot rub. This helps relieve him of his own bad feelings and lessen the wound of those who he or she hurt.

When it comes to accidents, like stepping on grandma’s toe, or spilling some milk, I think it’s very appropriate to have a child say, “I’m sorry.” It’s a social protocol and one I support, just like “Please,” and “Thank you.” We are civilizing our children. It’s very important.

Lauri Berkenkamp is the author of 14 books for adults and children, including “Teaching Your Children Good Manners,” part of the award-winning Go Parents! Guide series of parenting books. Her work has been translated into 13 languages. Lauri lives in New Hampshire with her husband and four children.

Susan Stiffelman, MFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, child expert and author of, “Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids while Staying Cool, Calm, and Connected.”  She is dedicated to helping parents raise kids who are joyful, resilient and authentically themselves–without power struggles, negotiations, meltdowns and the various other thieves of joy that can interfere with a parent’s ability to enjoy the journey of parenthood.  Her free newsletter can be found at

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children. Check out episodes of our Emmy winning series “Ruby’s Studio”,  along with our beautiful children’s booksmusic, and more.


Originally published January 7, 2015

Posted in: Expert Advice, Learn, Modern Parenting