Teaching Kids to Say I'm Sorry and Mean it

“Say sorry to your brother.”


“Look at him when you say it and when you say it, mean it.”

“Sorry.”  You have to imagine a dramatic eye roll here for the full effect.

I couldn’t even guess how many times my wife and I have had one of these moments with our boys. I don’t want to begin to think about how many times my mom had the same conversation with me. Parents naturally want an instant apology. It’s unfortunate that’s precisely when a child offers a “fake” apology just to get off the hook. The reality is that sometimes you need a cooling off period because “everybody needs a little time away.”

It’s impossible for me to talk about saying sorry without thinking of Chicago’s 1982 hit, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” We’ve all been there — kids and adults. For everyone, saying those words can sometimes be harder than trying to hit those crazy Peter Cetera high notes. Or is that just me?

Apologizing, especially when your kid doesn’t think it’s his or her fault, is difficult, but needs to be taught. It also needs to be properly modeled by Mom and Dad.

Psychologist Dr. Frank Gaskill of Southeast Psych is concerned that kids are losing the ability to apologize. He believes this is in large part due to what he calls the “narcissism-ization” of our society.

“We are living with the ‘me’ generation, where there’s little room for humility, submission or apology,” Gaskill says. “Individuals who teach kids how to properly apologize stand out in the crowd and become more of a shining star. My hope is that these ‘brighter stars’ will outshine the narcissistic stars that fill our skies.”

On those occasions when my kids haven’t wanted to apologize, I’ve noticed it’s more about keeping their emotions under control than not wanting to say sorry. How many times has your son or daughter been at the brink of tears when faced with a situation in which they should apologize? How many times have we as parents yelled at our kids or lost our temper and blamed our child for something without later apologizing? When you lose your temper with your child because of your own lack of sleep, work stress or so other reason and then don’t apologize, you are modeling a lack of “other-mindedness,” as Gaskill says.

An apology means more than uttering two words. It’s about recognizing mistakes and earnestly wanting to fix them. Instead of apologizing, sometimes parents might try to make up for their mistake with a gift like a toy, candy or extra video game time to help their child overlook or forget about what happened. There are also times when parents do apologize but immediately want to move on instead of taking the time to acknowledge important feelings.

Gaskill says the three most important keys to teaching a child how to apologize are modeling, valuing the apology without punitive consequences and unconditional love. Kids pay more attention to you — and how you do things — than you think. They know about friends you refuse to forgive, or family members that are estranged and won’t talk because they feel wronged by the other. People cut people out of each other’s lives. Doing so puts inordinate stress on everyone, including our kids.

Resolve the conflict. Apologize. Do as much as you can to get a sincere resolution. One last thought. If you’re not a Peter Cetara fan, try at least to echo the sentiments of Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) in “Frozen,” and let it go.


Derek James is a WCCB News Rising anchor, and lives in Charlotte with his wife and two boys, ages 6 and 8.