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Our Blog: March 5, 2018

Modeling Empathy for Children

While at the park, you see your child take a toy away from another child. Your first instinct is to grab the toy away from your child and say something like, “We don’t take toys from people. Now, tell him you’re sorry.” However, many early childhood educators suggest that forcing children to apologize, when they truly do not feel remorse, can have long-term negative consequences and doesn’t actually solve the problem.

As a parent, you want to teach your child to have good manners and how to show empathy for others. While we can teach manners, empathy is something that can be modeled and practiced, but not taught.  Empathy requires the ability to understand what another person is feeling and experiencing. Young children are not developmentally ready to consistently be empathetic until they are about seven or eight years of age. Children can learn empathy by watching adults in their lives be empathetic and through practice in listening to, and understanding others.

Children who are forced to apologize can receive the message that simply saying, “I’m sorry,” fixes everything. An insincere apology does not teach empathy. If we want a sincere apology, we need to be patient and willing to trust that our children will respond naturally over time.

While demanding a child apologize may not teach the lesson of forgiveness and empathy we’re meaning to convey, modeling the appropriate behavior for your child will show the acceptable way to apologize.

Take the following situation for example:

While at the park, you see your child hit another child. Instead of forcing your child to apologize, you focus your attention on the child who was hit, and apologize to that child, saying, “I’m so sorry that Liam hit you, hitting isn’t allowed in our house.” Then take your child to the side to explain how the behavior was unacceptable. If your child seems remorseful, you can make a suggestion like, “Would you like to see if there is a way you can help him feel better?” If your child agrees, you can suggest an apology or see if he would like to ask the other child what he can do to make him feel better; for example, giving hugs, finding him a special toy, or getting him an icepack. If your child says no, respect that he isn’t ready yet. The important thing in this situation is that you give your attention to the child who was hit and that you model what a genuine apology looks like.

Turn uncomfortable moments like this into teachable moments. With modeling and guidance, children can begin to see how conflict resolution is a process that leads to a repaired relationship between two people. Help your child to understand by giving them the words for the emotions they are feeling and give alternatives to the undesired behavior. “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 will use to express his feelings instead of hitting.

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 not 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 perfectly acceptable alternatives. 

About the Author

Dr. Susan Canizares

Dr. Susan Canizares is the Chief Academic Officer at Learning Care Group, responsible for leading all aspects of the educational mission. Dr. Canizares earned her Ph.D. in language and literacy development from Fordham University and a master’s degree in special education, specializing in Early Childhood, from New York University. She has authored more than 100 nonfiction photographic titles for beginning readers. Some of her published credits include Side by Side Series: Little Raccoon Catches a Cold and A Writer’s Garden.