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15th Aug 2018

Parenting expert claims teaching toddlers to say ‘sorry’ is off the mark


Sarah Ockwell-Smith, best-selling author of The Gentle Sleep Book writing in The Huffington Post, has made an argument against telling younger children to say ‘sorry’.

Ockwell-Smith acknowledges that by school-age most children have developed a degree of empathy, but as we all know, toddlers’ lack of empathy is legendary. My own toddler thinks nothing of whacking me and running off laughing maniacally. I try not to take it personally.

“Toddlers and preschoolers are notoriously lacking in empathy skills,” says Ockwell-Smith.

Empathy is an important factor in the business of being sorry and saying ‘sorry.’ Saying sorry implies that the child understands that their actions have effected another adversely. Ockwell-Smith also argues that in saying sorry there is an element of regret implied, that the child would like to make the other child feel better. Crucially, Ockwell-Smith believes that it is unlikely that a younger child hitting another child will feel either of these things.

“If they have poor empathy skills (as is normal for this age) they will not have such a train of thought. In fact, if they bit or hit another child in order to get hold of a toy that they wanted they may, in fact, believe that the injured child feels happy, as they themselves are happy now that they have the toy.”

“Forcing the child to apologise in this instance doesn’t make the child sorry, in fact, all it does is force them to lie.”

Ockwell-Smith cites the example of one child shoving another in the playground and the supervisor approaching to insist that the child apologises for shoving. The child apologises (most likely not meaning it sincerely) and the matter is dropped, without any elaboration on why the shoving was not acceptable and how shoving makes the other child feel.

“The chances of the child actually being sorry are quite low, they have learnt that lying gets them out of trouble,” says Ockwell-Smith.

So what is the solution?

Ockwell-Smith recommends that parents apologise for the actions of their toddler and then take the child to a quiet place to explain how their behaviour makes the other child feel.

“You can reiterate that they “shouldn’t shove but use their voice” if they are upset next time. The chances are they will still shove the next time, though, because that’s what two and three-year-olds do, but if you keep repeating this process each time you have a much greater chance of raising a truly empathic child, who sincerely means it when they say ‘sorry’ when they are older.”

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a mother of four. She has a degree in Psychology and worked for several years in Pharmaceutical Research and Development. Following the birth of her first child, Sarah re-trained as an Antenatal Teacher and Birth and Postnatal Doula. Sarah is the author of six parenting and childcare books including the bestselling ‘The Gentle Sleep Book’.

What’s YOUR take on this? Do you tell your toddler to say ‘sorry’? Let us know in the comments…