Sorry, not sorry

It’s a story as old as time: Two toddlers play together, or at least in close proximity to each other. (Future topic of discussion: the transition from parallel play to cooperative play.) Suddenly, a conflict erupts. 

A toy is grabbed and not returned upon request, for example. Sofia is shoved unceremoniously into the sandbox. Perhaps Finn goes in for a bite, leaving a mark on his friend’s “other tummy” (his back). Any way you slice it, something has gone wrong in the toddler social scene — and someone should definitely be sorry. Right?

Maybe not. 

“Children who are immature (typically age 6 and under) do not benefit from being forced to apologize,” wrote Megan Leahy in her parenting column in the Washington Post. “They simply don’t get the emotion you are going for. Forcing them to feel sorrow or guilt just confuses them.”  

OK, but …

That advice sounds reasonable when you read it in blissful silence while your children are off at daycare or school. But what about in the real world, when your little angel is the one screaming “Dumb head!” and flinging handfuls of sand at his friend Avi while her parents look on, perhaps judging your parenting chops? 

What do you do? 

From my experience at various Twin Cities playgrounds and other toddler hotspots, the traditional response is for the parent of the offending child to rush over and insist on an apology: “Jasper! We do not throw sand and say mean things to our friends! Tell Avi you’re sorry.” 

This admonishment is usually met with resistance and, at best, a perfunctory, insincere “sorry” muttered in the direction of the ground. 

If we’re honest with ourselves, perhaps we can admit these displays are really performed for the benefit of the adults involved. After all, it’s embarrassing when your child is the one who has hurt or offended someone else. 

Telling your child to “Say you’re sorry!” really says to the community at large, “I acknowledge that my child was in the wrong. I really want him to be sorry. Please don’t judge me!”

Another way? 

According to Leahy, a better approach is for you, the parent, to issue the apology: “I’m sorry, Avi, that Jasper was rude and threw sand at you.” 

She suggests then introducing the concept of “making amends” as your child gets older and more conscious of other people’s feelings. 

“[Making amends] is powerful because we are slowly starting to notice others’ pain, we are naming the feelings and we are trying to make things right by taking positive actions,” Leahy wrote. 

Laura Davis and Janis Keyser, in their book Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, echo this advice, pointing out that young children often don’t understand that their actions are hurtful. 

“We often ask kids to say they’re sorry before the children figure out what actually happened,” they wrote. 

Instead, the authors suggest bringing the children together to go over the situation together, helping them figure out what went wrong and the consequences of their actions. This allows children to work on their own resolutions to problems and tap into their capacity for a compassionate response. 

According to Davis and Keyser: “Children who are given the opportunity to participate in helping the other child feel better often do amazing things: bring their blanket (or the other child’s), get ice or volunteer a hug. When children aren’t pressured into making a pat response, they watch intently, learn about the other child’s hurt and, if given the opportunity, in their own time, find ways to express their caring and concern.” 

And what parent wouldn’t like to see that?

Shannon Keough lives in St. Paul with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to