Does Forcing Kids to Say “I’m Sorry” Teach Them to Lie?

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Father comforts a sad child. Problems in the family
21 Sep 2012

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is now past. G-d, in His infinite kindness, gave us a special day where He forgives us for all the wrong we have done during the year.

According to Jewish tradition, if we are truly remorseful, the sins between us and G-d will be forgiven on Yom Kippur. The sins we have committed between us and our fellow man require a little more work. We need to ask for forgiveness and say we are sorry to others in order to fully atone for our sins.

I know that this is not such a simple task for adults. It certainly gets complicated when we ask this of our kids.

However, saying we are sorry to others before Yom Kippur is easiest if we have been teaching our kids this lesson throughout the year.

Instructing kids to say “I’m sorry” is how we teach them to have good interpersonal relationships. It improves their rapport with others. Friends (hopefully) make up after they’ve gotten into an argument. When we bump into someone on the street, we are socially obligated to apologize.

Apologizing is an important skill to have. It is the way to be courteous, show respect to others, be socially responsible and to demonstrate accountability for our actions.

Along these lines, we want to incorporate the Jewish ideal of atonement into our kids’ psyche. It should be natural, reflexive. It is part of our obligation as Jewish parents.

But as we try to teach this behavior, we often run into a problem. As a parent, I know I sometimes force my children to say they are sorry when they really aren’t. It can be pretty uncomfortable when our children make a social faux pas. Sometimes my embarrassment over my child’s behavior causes me to act more strictly than I should. I know I have also felt pressure from other parents or relatives to make my kids say they are sorry.

Unfortunately, forcing children to apologize teaches them to be insincere. One parent educator contends that it teaches them to lie. Why? Because children are usually not sorry for their behavior; they are often too angry to care.

Children may also use the word “sorry” to get themselves out of trouble. They know if they say they are sorry without meaning it, their parents will stop bothering them.

Sometimes children actually do feel bad about what they did. But then their parents may overreact and ruin their natural remorse. Kids then go on the defense and misbehave even more.

So what can we do? Is there a way we can we teach kids to say sorry sincerely?

I think it helps if we clarify the lesson that we want to teach our children. Our ultimate goal is not for our kids to say the word “sorry.” We want them to show that they are truly sorry for what they have done. We want to help them repair the damage they have inflicted onto others. We want them to recognize that saying they’re sorry means that they regret what they have done because they have hurt another human being.

Does it sound like an overwhelming task? It doesn’t have to be. Here are four ways that we can teach our children the right way to be sorry:

1) Give the child the benefit of the doubt. As I am sure you know, forcing your children to say they are sorry, even when they really are, can set you up for a power struggle. Often when we say, “Tell Sara you are sorry!” your child will refuse to cooperate–she needs a way to save face. Children can run away and hide, laugh nervously, get angry or say, “She deserved it because she was bothering me.” “I hate her and I will never say I am sorry!”

Then the battle is on. To avoid that we need to be as gentle with the perpetrator as we are with the victim.

We can give the benefit of the doubt by assigning positive intent and speaking in a non-confrontational manner:

“I am sure you didn’t mean to make Mikey mad and hurt his feelings. You see that he is crying and sad. It is important to say you are sorry when you hurt someone. It shows that you care. You might want to do that now.”

2) Actions speak louder than words. Even after a child apologizes, it is better if we can encourage them to follow up with an action that truly shows they are remorseful. Parents can say, “Telling Jack you are sorry is a great first step. Is there anything you can do to show him that you are sorry?”

Younger children may need some help figuring out ways to demonstrate their emotions. We can offer them some options:

“You pulled Ari’s hair, so you can make him feel better by making nice to his head. Here, I will show you how.”

“You might want to buy Micah a new ball with your allowance or you can give him one of your own. How do you think that would work?”

It takes a little more tact with older kids. Parents can try saying:

“I don’t want to get into your business. The problem is Sara was upset about what you said about her dress. You might want to throw a kind word her way.”

3) Plan for the future. When children make mistakes we can use it as an opportunity to teach them that they are in control of improving their behavior. We want to let them know that we have faith that they can react appropriately in difficult situations.

After we have helped them make amends we can say, “The next time that Sara says your picture is silly, is there a better way you can handle it, instead of hitting her? Do you think you can find your words and say ‘I don’t like being made fun of!’ instead of using your hands?”

For older kids you can say, “I know you felt bad when you found the notes Eli borrowed all crumpled in the bottom of your backpack. I am sure that you will find a way to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

When parents gently review children’s behavior they give children an opportunity to learn from their experiences. Children can then make plans and have goals on how to make amends in the future.

4) Role model. The best way to teach kids anything is through role modeling. They learn best by watching us. Children need to see their parents act genuinely contrite in order to learn the meaning of being truly remorseful.

I know I have plenty of opportunities to model this type of behavior. In the course of the day, I say things I don’t mean, yell because I am tired and accuse my kids falsely (Related: 4 Ways to Avoid Losing It With Your Kids). I know that if meaningfully say I am sorry in all these situations, it teaches my kids a valuable lesson. It is a live example of what they can do when they mess up and hurt someone’s feelings.

Parents can say:

“I am sorry I yelled before. I was tired and seeing the mess set me off. I wish I would have been able to tell you calmly what I needed.”

“I am sorry I accused you of leaving the milk out. I should have given you the benefit of the doubt.”

“I am sorry I hurt your feelings. I overreacted before. Sometimes I say things that I shouldn’t.”

Giving kids the benefit of the doubt, teaching them to show their remorse, helping them plan to be better in the future and role modeling are all ways we can teach our children to be sorry–sincerely.

Adina Soclof, MS. CCC-SLP, works as a Parent Educator for Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau facilitating How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk workshops as well as workshops based on Siblings Without Rivalry. Adina also runs

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.