Little people push, hit, bite and lash out. This is completely natural and developmentally appropriate. Parents usually swoop in with embarrassed phrases like “tell ____ you’re sorry” or, even worse, “hug/kiss ____ all better”.
No. Definitely not. I know it can be embarrassing when toddlers act like toddlers. I know it’s hard to resist saying what seems to be the socially acceptable expectation. But please, refrain from insisting your child apologise. And especially refrain from encouraging them to kiss or hug someone all better. I know for certainty, if someone hurts me, I definitely don’t want them in my space, uninvited, offering physical affection. It seems a little absurd I know, but to my own bewilderment, I’ve witnessed this interesting gesture. My daughter definitely does not want to be “kissed all better” by someone who has just hurt her.
Kids will be kids and that’s ok. We aren’t responsible for their behaviour. It is, however, our responsibility to be nearby our little ones in order that we can ideally prevent such altercations. Toddlers and small children need adult support and supervision. They don’t know, nor should they be expected to know, how to negotiate with their peers, how to appropriately assert themselves or how to cope in a mature way with frustration.
What can we do when our child hurts another child?
* Check the other child is ok. Demonstrate compassion and empathy towards the injured/upset child.
* Apologise on behalf of your child. You could say “I’m so sorry ____ hurt you, I wish that didn’t happen.”
* Support your child. Assess the situation. Does your child feel frustrated, intimidated, sad, tired, hungry etc. Stay beside or nearby him/her to ensure positive interactions with other children.
Why isn’t it a good idea to tell a child to say “sorry”?
In a nutshell, it’s pointless. Aside from ticking an imaginary social etiquette box, it doesn’t teach either child anything. Forcing a child to apologise doesn’t teach empathy, remorse or connection. It’s easy to think that those feelings may follow. That perhaps after kids learn to parrot the words, they may also learn the associated emotions. However, children learn those emotions through modelling and when they are permitted to develop naturally. If anything, forcing a child to say “sorry” inhibits the natural development of these feelings. Instead of being allowed to feel that yuck, uncomfortable feeling of regret and sadness at another’s pain, they feel self protective and defensive when forced to apologise. Watching their parent say the appropriate words will both teach them to say “sorry”, and provide them with the freedom necessary to eventually feel those emotions.
An aside, but also relevant, the hurt child doesn’t gain anything from a forced apology either. It’s empty and meaningless and doesn’t help them to feel better.
We’ve never insisted our daughters say “sorry” following altercations. We immediately care for the sad or injured person and then check in with the one who’d committed the ‘crime’. Almost always they need some kind of support as they play, or one of them needs some down/quiet time. Despite never demanding our children apologise, they often do say “sorry” - and when they do, it is genuine, sincere and authentic. It might even be hours after the event that one of them will say something like “I’m sorry I pushed you. I didn’t want to hurt you.” Followed by a heartfelt and spontaneous hug.
So please, when dealing with the aftermath of an altercation between toddlers, don’t insist your child politely parrot “sorry”. And especially don’t ask them to hug or kiss my child as a means to fix what happened. Simply, check on the injured party, say you are sorry they got hurt, and then support your child in whatever way they need you.