We all want to have polite children. Words like thank you and excuse me can help children throughout their life. But when some words are just repeated without thinking, they can become meaningless. Saying, “I’m sorry” can be a powerful tool for repairing relationships, or it can be an empty echo said only to appease a parent. How can we teach children the real meaning of apologizing?

Instead of focusing on the words, “I’m Sorry.” let’s look at two skills we can help kids learn: feeling empathy and offering help.


Empathy is the ability to recognize and share the feelings of another. Children begin to develop this skill around age 4 or 5. We can help them by describing emotions in detail both their own and in others. Words like, “I see your big smile and happy eyes, you are excited” or “Oh no, look at her sad face, she is crying.” Asking kids to show you different emotions in the mirror can be a fun activity while getting ready in the morning. Build your child’s emotional vocabulary by describing how someone looks when they are: disappointed, frustrated, nervous, excited, afraid, surprised, or furious. When another child in the playroom is having a big emotional reaction, this is a great teaching moment. Talk to your kid about how that child may be feeling, “She is so disappointed, she really wanted that toy.” Show your child that you are comfortable with other people’s emotions including their own.


Saying, “I’m sorry” can easily be paired with, “How can I help.” This empowers children to find their own solutions, and listen to what others need. If your child hurts someone, they could get an ice pack, bandage, or just a cool cloth to help alleviate the other person’s pain. If your child breaks something, they could help clean up the pieces, tape or glue it back together.


Young children may intentionally hurt someone, and not feel sorry, and not want to apologize, or offer help. Parents know it can be very hard to make a toddler do something she doesn’t want to do. Instead of getting into a power struggle with your child, this is your chance to model the appropriate behavior. Check in with the hurt child, ask how you can help, offer sympathy and comfort. Giving all your attention to the child who was hurt rather than fussing at your own child prevents a negative attention loop. Your child may be looking for a big reaction from you, or wanting a power struggle. Saying a short phrase like, “That was not kind, I do not want to play with you right now,” gives a clear message that her behavior was not acceptable.

Here is an article with more information about children and empathy: