"I'm Sorry" — Just the Beginning

Hedda Sharapan

I once heard about a boy who asked his mom, “What if I hit the baby real hard and then real fast say ‘I’m sorry’”?  So many children think like that -- that all they have to do is say “I’m sorry,” and they’re off the hook.

“I’m sorry” certainly is a powerful phrase – and an important one for interpersonal relationships, but how can we help children use it meaningfully? 

Let’s see what we can learn from Fred. In a Mister Rogers episode, the puppet Lady Elaine was angry and used her magical powers to literally turn things upside down.  When she was finally able to tell King Friday she was sorry, he said, “I’m glad to hear that you’re sorry, but it’s just a beginning.” The next step was to clean up the mess she created. 

Fred wanted to help children learn that their actions affect others…and to work at fixing things (if possible) or at least work at repairing the relationship.  When you think about it, those situations really are “teachable moments.”  That’s why saying “I’m sorry” is just a beginning.  More recently, we used Fred’s approach as an inspiration for a Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood episode about that same theme (Saying I'm sorry is the first step.  Then, how can I help?). 

You can hear more about Fred’s thoughts on “I’m sorry” in this introductory video from our “Mad Feelings” workshop. Everybody gets angry with children sometimes, even Fred Rogers!  It's how we handle it afterwards that matters most. 

Here are some ways we can make “I’m sorry” a teachable moment:

Create the environment for an effective interaction

Try to set up the conversation a bit more privately, somewhat away from the others, between the child who did the action and the one who was affected by it.  Help both children know it’s important to look right at each other.  If you're down at the children's eye level too, it will be easier for you to prompt them and to mediate the conversation.  Eye contact and facial expressions help us convey that we’re genuinely sorry – and genuinely forgiving.  Some children might dismiss the apology with, “Oh, that’s okay,” but let’s help them with a better response, like “Thanks for saying that.”

Put into words what you’re sorry about

To make this “teachable moment” a learning experience, help children go beyond just saying “I’m sorry.”  We need to help them tell the other child what they are sorry about – “I’m sorry I said something that wasn’t nice”…”I’m sorry I pushed you”…”I’m sorry I knocked over your block building.”

Just the beginning

We also need to help children put into words – and tell the other child -- what they learned from the experience.  What won’t they do again?  “I won’t push…I won’t say mean words...I won’t knock over your blocks.”  Even if a child’s words are as tenuous (and probably more honest!) as “I’ll try not to do that again,” that’s a step in the right direction.   

Be a role model

Children learn so much from watching how we handle situations.  We all have moments when we need to say that we’re sorry.  Think about what it means to children when we adults can tell them we’re sorry that we handled something wrong.  First of all, it shows respect for children and that strengthens our relationship with them.  Secondly, it makes it easier for them to say they’re sorry, if they hear it from the important adults in their lives. And it lets them know what it's like when someone is genuinely sorry.  That’s role-modeling.  And it’s powerful.

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I’ve come to understand that saying “I’m sorry” is so much more than being polite or having manners. It’s an important part of interpersonal relationships.  And when you help children learn about offering apologies that are meaningful, you’re helping them work on social skills that will help them all through school and through life. 

Hedda Sharapan
M.S. Child Development
Director of Early Childhood Initiatives 
Sharapan@fredrogers.org  

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