By Nicole Gregory
When my son was a toddler, his little friend, Tommy, had a habit of immediately saying “Sorry!” whenever he was part of a confl ict, as if to ward off any adult intervention. It was funny to see how quickly he’d blurt out this word without showing any sense of sorrow (except for the fact that he had gotten caught). But he was getting a lot of practice at the skill of lying rather than the art of apologizing.
Any child can be trained to parrot the words “I’m sorry,” but when an apology is given with genuine empathy, hurt feelings can be healed, conflicts can be resolved and there’s a good chance someone will learn a key lesson in what not to do in the future.
That’s the value of manners in action. But genuine empathy doesn’t always spring automatically from young children. And it’s especially tricky for toddlers— who are at a developmental stage in which they think the whole world revolves around them and their needs— to learn it.
“Toddlers are in the mode of ‘I need to take care of myself first,’” says Lisa Wilkin, MEd, president of the Southern California Association for the Education of Young Children. Still, you can start teaching them empathy at a very young age.
“Even if a child is too young to understand what you’re saying, talk about why you don’t want them to hurt others, so that when the cognitive getting along abilities kick in, they’ve already had some experience with the feelings,” she says. Here are some steps you can take to help your toddler learn to empathize and make meaningful apologies.