Beyond "I'm Sorry": Teaching Children to Apologize and to Forgive

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Apologies can be powerful. Researchers have found that they can de-escalate conflict, repair trust, reduce retaliation, inspire forgiveness, mitigate hurt feelings, mend relationships-- and even lower blood pressure. Children as young as four feel better when they receive a sincere apology from a playmate after being hurt. The key word: sincere. Coercing children into offering apologies fails to comfort the victim -- and the wrongdoer learns little more than how to feign remorse.

Here are a few tips for getting beyond the begrudging "I'm sorry." This approach can cultivate empathy, help children learn to manage emotions, and improve behavior.

–Jenny Friedman, Executive Director


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  • Model remorse --- and forgiveness. Parents have a big role to play. If we want our children to apologize --- and to forgive --- we need to do so ourselves. Modeling matters. Whether you've had a mini-tantrum after a stressful day, accidentally broken your daughter's toy, or left your son's favorite pj's at Grandma's, make your apology straightforward and sincere --- and ask for forgiveness. When your kids misbehave, resist commenting on their character and instead talk about how their actions impacted you ("It made me upset to see that you drew on the wall").

  • Most important, make amends. Sincere apologies can help, but they don't fix everything. What matters more is repairing the hurt. Prompt your child with questions like, "What can we do to make Nala feel better?" Be prepared to offer suggestions, such as a hug, returning the grabbed toy, picking up the toppled Legos, making a note or drawing. Or, in the case of the decorated wall, help scrubbing it off.

  • Encourage empathy. If your child was harmed, help her or him learn to empathize with the harmer by explaining why that person may have behaved badly. ("I think Mateo grabbed the toy because he saw how much fun it was and couldn't wait to have it.") If your child has done the harm, encourage her or him to stand in the victim's shoes by noticing their hurt feelings ("I wonder if yelling at her made her scared." "I wonder if that dog is hiding so it won't get bonked by your truck again"). Children need lots of practice to understand their emotions -- and those of others-- but doing so can help children become more comfortable apologizing, and forgiving.

  • Problem-solve. When your child is calmer, discuss their behavior but also their emotions ("What were you feeling when you threw the sand?"). Talk about strategies for handling such situations in the future. These conversations can increase children's emotional literacy and help them work toward a time when fewer apologies are needed, and forgiveness is given more easily. After this, if any "I'm sorrys" are required, they are likely to be much more sincere.


  • Do you think it's hard to apologize sometimes, even if you know you were in the wrong? If so, why do you think that is?

  • If someone behaved badly toward you, would it be helpful to know why? Would you be more likely to forgive that person if you understood the reasons?

  • If something you do is hurtful to a friend, would it help if they said they forgive you? If your friend hurt you, would you feel better if your friend said, "I'm sorry"?


You Poked My Heart by Brandy Cooke. Ages 3-6. The puppies Lou and Sue tussle over a couple of balloons, and one gets popped. This sweet story helps kids understand that everyone makes mistakes, but we can move past them.

Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes. Ages 3-8. Though Lilly loves school, her attitude changes when her teacher takes away her cherished purse because she's playing with it during class. A long-time favorite with a gentle approach to apologies.

The Lumberjack's Beard by Duncan Beedie. Ages 5-8. This sweet, simple story uses humor to help kids see how actions (chopping down trees) can have serious consequences (animals losing their homes). A tale that encourages us to look for better solutions that don't hurt others.

The Forgiveness Garden by Lauren Thompson. Ages 8 and up. When one girl decides to take a step toward peace and forgiveness, a conflict begins to resolve. This parable shows us how reconciliation can save everyone.


"A stiff apology is a second insult... The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt."

--- Gilbert K. Chesterton, English writer and philosopher