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I'm sure you've watched the scenario unfold in your home (as I have in mine).  The brother takes the sister's toy or says something rude.  And you, the wise overseer of sibling relationships, say, "You need to say you're sorry!"  Out comes a hideous, grumbling "I'm sorry" muttered under the breath or flung out like a dirty diaper.  Then maybe you respond, "Say it like you mean it!"

Why is it that our kids have trouble saying they are sorry?  And how can we help them to "say it like they mean it"?

What is Sorry?

Of course, what we want for our children is much more than just acting lessons or voice modulation.  It would do them no good to learn how to sound sorry without actually being sorry.  So what does it mean to be sorry?  We generally think of the phrase "I'm sorry" as meaning "I did something wrong" and it can mean that, but look a little closer at the word for some fresh insight.

The word "sorry" comes from the same root as the word "sorrow".  It simply means, "I am sad about what happened."  Teaching our children to say "I'm sorry" is really, at its core, about teaching them to weep with those who weep.

It is difficult to say "I'm sorry". Teaching our children about the three different kinds of "I'm sorry" can help them understand what they are saying.

I was Wrong

Sometimes our children have trouble saying they are sorry because they know that it will involve saying that they were wrong.  When one child has done something to hurt another, fear and pride get in the way of true repentance.  Perhaps they are afraid that if they admit wrong, they will lose their opportunity to obtain justice for something that was done to them.  Perhaps they are afraid of the consequences.  Both of these are natural responses and I will talk in another post about how your track record as a mediator can go a long way toward teaching our children how to handle those fears.  Our children need to learn how to weep with those who weep, how to …

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:3-4

Yes, saying you are wrong is painful.  But it is a sacrifice that we want our children to learn how to make as an offering of love and as an expression of the importance of the relationship.   It is also important to (gently) point out to your children that often everyone around them can already see that they were wrong.  Denying it doesn’t enhance their dignity, but admitting it does.

It Was an Accident!

Sometimes our children do not want to apologize because what they did was an accident.  They are concerned that saying “I’m sorry” means saying “I did it on purpose.”  This is the number one reason to teach our children that saying “I’m sorry” simply means “I’m sad about what happened to you.”  Weeping with those who weep is the best way to express genuine love and concern for someone who is sad, even if we had a part in causing the hurt.

Explaining that the hurt was accidental can actually be soothing to the offended party if it is expressed in the right way.  Yelling, “I’m sorry!  It was an accident!” communicates “I don’t care that you are upset.  I just want to make sure nobody blames me for this.”  Saying “Oh no!  I’m so sorry!  I truly did not mean to do that,” expresses sadness over the situation and a desire to comfort the person with the knowledge that the offense wasn’t intentional.  Further, acknowledging that he played a role in his sibling’s discomfort, even if it was unintentional, lends authenticity to his sorrow.

Sorrow of Sympathy

If your children have a hard time believing that they should say “I’m sorry” when they hurt someone accidentally, remind them that we can even say we are sorry when we had nothing at all to do with a sibling’s sadness.  For example, a child might say to his sister, “I’m sorry you can’t find your sketchbook.”  He doesn’t mean that he had a hand in that situation.  He simply wants to convey that her sadness makes him sad, too.  Training our children to sympathize with their siblings in situations where they are not to blame better prepares them to “weep with those who weep” even when they were the cause of the weeping.

Teaching our children the three kinds of “I’m sorry” can go a long way towards helping them understand the meaning of the phrase.  In another post, we’ll talk about what a genuine apology looks like and how it heals.

  • Love this post so much Lynna! This is something I’m going to work on teaching to my kiddos! Just excellent, thank you so much for sharing!

    • Thanks, Amanda! I write what comes out of my day to day interactions with my kiddos. I’m no expert. But I do have some experience to share!

  • I love how you separate the three types of “sorry”. This is beautiful. I’ll be pondering these ideas for a while!

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    Lynna Sutherland is the mother of eight kids ages teen to toddler. She hosts the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast and writes about sibling conflict resolution and sibling relationship building. Lynna believes that the gospel transforms sibling conflict from an obstacle to an opportunity and loves to show other parents the freedom and confidence of gospel-centered parenting.