Many parents want to teach their child to have good manners and show empathy for others. This is why if you see your child take a toy away from another child your first instinct is to grab the toy away and make your child apologize. However, many early childhood educators suggest that forcing children to apologize when they do not feel remorse does not practice empathy and can have negative long-term consequences.
Why we model instead of teach
Empathy is something that cannot be taught, but has to be modeled and practiced. This is because (according to Piaget) young children are not developmentally ready to be empathetic until they are about seven or eight years old. However, children can learn empathy by watching adults in their lives be empathetic and through practice in listening to, and understanding others.
Model sincere apologies, not forced ones
Forced apologies do not provide learning opportunities for your child. Allow your child to try to respond in a sincere way to someone they have offended, and know that it may be an apology. Your child might pat the other child on the back, try to give them a hug, or offer a favorite toy. These compassionate gestures are apologies without using the words, “I’m sorry,” and are acceptable alternatives.
Turn uncomfortable situations into teaching moments
With modeling and guidance, children can begin to see how conflict resolution can repair relationships. Help your child understand by giving them the words for the emotions they are feeling and alternatives to undesired behavior. You could say:
“I see that you were angry when you hit your friend. Instead of hitting, you could tell him that you are angry because he took your toy. It is okay to feel angry, but it is not okay to hit.”
By doing this, you are providing the words your child can use to express his feelings instead of hitting.