How To Teach Your Kids The Importance Of Saying Sorry

Asincere apology is powerful. ‘Saying sorry’ was among the many niceties we were taught while growing up. To say “I’m sorry” was meant to be a verbal repentance, an acceptance of our folly and a sincere request for forgiveness; it was a way for us to redeem ourselves.  

However, often children, and even adults, apologise without really meaning it. Sometimes, it becomes a convenient way to simply get out of a sticky situation. While it’s important to say sorry, it is also crucial to understand and remember the true emotion and meaning behind the word. Otherwise, ‘sorry’ just doesn’t cut it!

Trudy Ludwig’s Sorry! explores the ill effects of insincere apologies. Sometimes, these can be more hurtful and damaging than not apologising at all. Maurie J. Mannings’ beautifully illustrated characters with vivid expressions wonderfully complement Ludwig’s impactful words. Ludwig’s straightforward narrative presents a plausible true-to-life scenario that readers (both adults and children) can relate to. After all, at some point in our lives, haven’t we either resorted to or dealt with insincere apologies?

Jack hangs out with Charlie, a troublemaker who frequently says sorry even though he doesn’t mean it. Although Jack finds this disturbing, he continues his friendship with Charlie, because it provides him the social acceptance he craves. When Charlie wrecks Leena’s science project and, as always, apologises insincerely, she tells him that “Sorry doesn’t cut it!” Charlie’s teacher helps him understand that he must make amends for his actions. With Jack’s help, he eventually restores Leena’s project. In the process, Jack and Leena become friends and ultimately, Jack chooses Leena’s friendship over Charlie’s.

The story arms readers with enough information to be able to make the right behavioural choices. In this case, Sorry! reiterates the significance of a sincere apology, and points out the harmful effects of insincere ones. As a bonus, at end of the book, readers can look forward to Ludwig’s insightful note and relevant food-for-thought articles (e.g. “Apology Dos & Don’ts”). A notably informative section is an afterword written by psychologist and author of On Apology, Aaron Lazare, where he insightfully deconstructs an apology into four parts:

  • Offense acknowledgement (e.g. “I’m sorry I wrecked your science project.”)
  • Offering an explanation (e.g. “I wasn’t thinking when I tugged at your project.”)
  • Expressing shame and remorse (e.g. “I really feel bad that you’ll have to redo it.”)
  • Offering reparation (e.g. “I really want to help you make this right.”)

It’s no wonder that a proper, authentic apology is one of the hardest things to convey! This made it easy for me as a parent to revisit the meaning of a sincere apology. How often does our “I’m sorry” constitute these four elements? It also helped me repeat and verbalise these steps to my children with the intention that they would internalise the importance of an adequate apology.

Sorry! was influential for a variety of additional reasons:

  • The story makes the hurt of an insincere apology tangible through Leena’s anger and Jack’s disappointment in Charlie. As readers, we empathise with and understand these characters’ emotions.
  • Sorry! demonstrates the consequences for those who only apologise as lip service. Charlie loses his friend Jack- a consequence that is quite imaginable in real life as well.
  • Most critically, the story doesn’t come across as a sermon in trying to teach or convince readers to make heartfelt apologies. It handles the topic rationally and simply presents a very credible situation. It mostly builds upon readers’ self-efficacy in doing the right thing rather than having an underlining prescriptive (“you should…”) tone.

The last point is important, because at any stage in our lives from toddlerhood to adulthood, no one likes to be coerced into apologising. A number of positive parenting practitioners also support this theory. As I read this delightful book with my preschooler and first grader, I couldn’t help but think of past instances when it was a struggle to get my boys to apologise, and that too sincerely.

Sorry! helped us talk though the issue without having to confront it directly. Our discussion about the story and the different characters’ personalities and reactions led to some interesting strategies that we could all follow to be true to ourselves and evaluate when and how to earnestly apologise:

  • As parents and caregivers, we could certainly model appropriate behaviour. In this case, mull over the four parts to an apology, as stated by Lazare, and genuinely apologise to our children or even to another adult in front of them. This not only reinforces the right way to communicate an apology, but also helps children realise that there’s no shame in being truly sorry. On the contrary, it makes everyone feel better!
  • If we see that our actions have inadvertently hurt someone (physically or emotionally), we could have a conversation with them about it, assess the facts, and apologise. This helps in making the entire process more rational and less driven by emotion. This kind of open communication also helps to develop more trusting relationships.
  • Like Leena, if we are hurt, we can respectfully let the offender know by stating the facts and firmly demanding an apology.
  • Sometimes, it helps to let children talk about their emotions and get a sense of what led them to hurt or disrespect someone. An exploration of facts helps calm children. They are more likely to use their innate empathy and eventually learn to apologise on their own accord.
  • A child’s apology, for the record, could be very different from how we as adults may apologise. For a child, it may amount to giving someone a hug or making them a drawing. As adults, we should accept this and not force what we would consider a socially acceptable apology. It’s the first step to making children receptive and ready for Lazare’s four-part apology.

(Image via Parents.)

After reading Sorry! I was quickly reminded of how humbling and vital a sincere “I’m sorry” can be. It can avert misunderstandings, strengthen relationships, and diffuse tension. It’s healing as well as liberating. It truly helps us reconnect with ourselves and others in a peaceful and compassionate manner. To quote Lazare’s thought-provoking words:

“An apology is one of the most profound interactions between individuals, groups, and nations. It has the power to undo the shame and guilt of the offending party. It can dissolve grudges and vengeance and forge harmony in the relationship. Without an apology, there may be no forgiveness.”


Nidhi J

Nidhi is an avid traveller and reader. A sushi and yoga lover. Her 'pre-kids' life was spent in the ever-dynamic field of Communication Sciences. After which, she chose to be a fulltime mom. Reading and playing with her two high energy boys has been a fascinating journey. They have (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. Children’s literature has been an inspiring new discovery for her. She’s constantly seeing the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.

Read her articles here.