We’ve all done it. We see a child push someone else and tell them to say “sorry”. Once they say sorry we tell them to go play or in some cases, put them in time out. What if I told you we are teaching children that “sorry” is a get out jail free card? Time out doesn’t solve the problem. We are teaching them that saying sorry fixes the problem without doing anything and “bad people” always go in time out when they’ve done wrong. That’s not how the world works. Here is how children resolve conflict on their own without the words “I’m sorry.”
Developmentally, children are not able to fully capable of empathy until around the age of seven. That means children are not able to really understand how to be sorry or what it means to be sorry. Which is why it is so important that we allow children to have interactions with each other without an adult stepping in. Peer interactions are how children learn to be empathetic with each other.
Children do not have as much self control as adults do. If you are like me, there are times you are walking with family and have an urge to push them just becasue you are family and pick on each other. But you don’t. Children do not have that control yet. If they want to push someone, most of the time, they do! Whether the pushed child is hurt or not, they generally cry. Adults step in and have the pusher say sorry so the other child stops crying. What does the pusher learn? We can push as long as we say sorry. If it is repeated enough, they might push everyone out of the way and say sorry.
I have a question for you, if someone ran into your car and drove off leaving a note that said just said “sorry”, how would you feel? Angry? Annoyed? Okay because they said sorry? Keep that in mind the next time a child is forced to say sorry. Just because you, as the adult, know it is okay, doesn’t mean that the other person feels the same. Sorry does not always make things better.
How Children Resolve Conflict
Here are two ways I scaffold my children to use their words instead of saying sorry. One scenario is when a child gets hurt, self-inflected or not. The other scenario is when child takes a toy from someone else. These are daily occurrences, and I would rather not have to solve them all on my own.
When a child gets hurt
Here is a scenario that happens frequently with my kiddos. Two children are playing together. They each have some sort of toy in their hand; cars, animals, people, dinosaurs. Child 1 hits the other with their toy. Child 2 cries. We have two options here. Step in or let it play out.
Stepping in. Even in this option there are two ways to step in. Adults can step in and tell child 1, “That’s not nice. You need to say sorry.” OR adults can step in and really take advantage of the situation and help children learn about empathy.
Adults can say “Oh no, Child 1, look how sad child 2 is! We hit them with our toy and have made them sad! We need to make sure they are ok!” Then we go over how to check on someone. They ask the other child if they are okay and if they aren’t they ask how they can make them feel better. This is showing them that their actions have consequences. We can’t hit someones car and leave.
Letting it play out. Use this option with discretion. Depending on the children having the tiff, I let it play out. Usually, children will either find their own way to solve the problem or they will go through the steps of checking on someone without my help. There are times when I let it play out and a child comes up to say that someone hit them. To which I respond, “Well I didn’t hit you so let’s talk to the child who did.” Most of the time they just need to tell someone what happened and they are okay with playing more.
When children decide to take toys
Here is a scenario I have daily with my kiddos. Picture a group of children playing together with characters and animals. Most children have at least two because that’s what they do. Their hands are full so they have the “most”. One child (let’s call this child #1) who may or may not have something to play with walks up and takes a character from another child (we’ll call them #2). #2 starts yelling “HEYYYY!!!”
To be honest, this is one of my least favorite things to hear, which is why I try to give them tools and words to use instead of that.
#2 is yelling which is where most adults step in and tell #1 to give the toy back to #2 OR tell #2 that they have enough and they need to share with #1. Both of these solutions stop peer interaction and problem solving and enforce that adults solve all problems. We are conditioning children that when they scream “HEYYYY!” someone swoop in to fix the problem.
I do not swoop in (unless it is really serious like someone has broken something, but taking toys, that can be solved between children). I let the situation play out. My kiddos have learned to say “I had that first,” or “I’m still playing with that.” To which #2 says “When will you be all done?” or “How many more minutes?” Child #1 will tell them a time, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, etc.
The next part is when I do help. I will remind them when they have 1 minute left so they can mentally prepare themselves for being done with the toy. Now, this doesn’t always end tear-free. Sometimes kiddos are still wanting to get their way, and that’s okay. Remember to enfocre the rules, they said they would be done in 5 minutes so they get to be done.
5 Strategies Instead of “I’m Sorry”
Don’t solve it for them, solve it with them.
Working together with children is the best way to help them. Most children learn by doing, with adult help we can build more emotional connections. I hope to give children the stepping stones they need to eventually solve problems on their own. They retain the stepping stones better with adult help and scaffolding.
Give them minute warnings
Some children might want 10 minutes, others might want 2. When children start to realize numbers have meanings, they will start to say the biggest number they know. I limit it to 10 minutes if they choose a bigger number. This helps children mentally prepare for moving on. Adults know how to read clocks and can mentally prepare that way, children don’t yet. Verbally telling them how many minutes or showing them a countdown is a way to help them process.
“Are you okay?”
Often times, children want someone to acknowledge that they’re sad or hurt. They will play it up because adults coddle them and give them attention. “Are you okay” allows the hurt child to process how they are feeling and allows the other child to realize their actions have consequences. The more adults around them model it, the more they will begin to use it.
Talk them through frustrations and hurt feelings
It can be frustrating when you are building and it breaks. Acknowledge those feelings. “How frustrating! It fell over! Let’s try again!” Labeling the emotions helps the child process their emotions. It builds connections in their brain that will tell them in the future “You’re frustrated! But we can try again!” If a child is sad because they are hurt, talk it out. “Jimmy is sad because we push him. Look how sad his face is!” Adults know emotions, children need practice. This is how they get their practice.
Don’t rush in
We’ve all been there. Your precious little child is running and trips. We are too far away to catch them, but rush over anyway. Stop a think for a second, put yourself in their shoes? Would you freak out more or less when someone rushes over after you’ve tripped? The amount of tears a child sheds is based on how we react. I am going to be really honest with you. There was a time where I would rush, but now I don’t because it does more harm than good. I will be near them if I sense something could be moderately dangerous, but I don’t stop the play. I don’t rush in if they slip or wobble, I let it play out. More often than not, they don’t need (or want) our help.
Read my post about other ways to handle behavior issues here.
Words in Action
A while back a young two year old was in one of those Little Tikes cars. I always think of the Flintstones when I see them. He was attempting to push himself forward and ended up tipping over. I asked him, “You okay?” He said yes. I asked him if he wanted help. He said no. And he didn’t need my help. He found a way to climb out and pushed the car up.
Sometimes I trip over the kiddos. When I do I say “I’m sorry I tripped over you! Are you okay?” Sometimes they say yes. Other times they say no and I’ll ask how I can make them feel better. I am showing them that even if it was an accident, I am sorry and don’t want them to be okay.
There are times I see a child fall really bad while running with friends. I get close enough to hear what they’re saying but I don’t force anything. My kiddos know to check on each other when they are hurt (sometimes with gentle reminders of what their job is). They will check on their friend to make sure they are okay or get me if it is serious.
One child was running down the hill and lost their balance towards the end and tumbled a bit. They got up, brushed themselves off, looked at me for a reaction and kept running. Children look at adults for how to respond to situations. If we are constantly pushing worry onto them, they won’t want to try anything.
Here is a post I wrote about raising a generation of snowflakes vs free-range children.
It will all be okay.
Children can learn how to be kind, caring individuals if we let them. Letting them say “sorry” and run off is not going to solve that. Let’s make children accountable for their actions (that also means being accountable for your own actions). What we do and model is what children will do and model.
I hope you have gained some insight in how children resolve conflict. My challenge for you is to avoid the phrases “I’m sorry,” “say sorry”, or “sorry” in general for a week. Make it your goal to teach problem solving skills instead. Your reward? Kinder children. A little goes a long way. 🙂
As always, thanks for reading!
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Eze Azubike says
A very practical and good counsel.
Jenifer Chavira says
Very fine article, but allow me to add just a tad bit to your scenario. What happens when we don’t require them to apologize? I truly feel like we are missing a valuable lesson when we don’t require apologies as well as all of the problem solving you have suggested. Sometimes, you have to do what is right, even when you don’t feel like it. Today, we allow our children to be controlled by their feelings, instead of right and wrong. It is right to work it out with them, give them the words they need for compromise and negotiations, teach them to tell others how they are willing to be treated, so that they can be assertive and stand up for themselves. But we also need to help them do what is right no matter what. And standing up and owning your own behavior is vital! Not for a “get out of jail free card.” But for a deeper, more life giving reason. I own my actions, and I will not play a victim or a bully. If you teach a child to empathize, and give them tools for compassion then we will have way less bullies in our schools.
I love this discussion! I do think children should apologize, but when it is developmentally appropriate. When they can start to understand the meaning behind “sorry” is when I would then work on apologizing. Developmentally children aren’t able to understand empathy until they’re about 7. The tips I have listed are for children 7 and under to help support them while they begin to understand empathy and that their actions do have consequences. I do believe that the tools I give my kiddos at work are helping them become compassionate. They will go up to a child who tripped on their own and check on them, make them feel better. It may sound a bit soft, but when you see it in action children do are owning up to their actions, other kids will say “that hurt! Don’t do that.” For the age of kiddos I work with, sorry doesn’t help solve the problem and that’s why I don’t use it.