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. {pagebreak} Get the facts If you come upon two young children in the middle of a conflict, ask them both to tell you what happened (the apparent victim may have initiated the problem). Take time to listen to each child, then repeat back to them what you’ve heard— for example, “So Katie took your truck before you were done with it and pushed it under the bed where you can’t get it.” “It’s helpful not to be punitive or to introduce shame,” says Debra Borys, PhD, a Los Angeles–based clinical psychologist. Toddlers will sometimes try out behavior, such as grabbing a child’s toy, just to see what happens. Borys suggests making an observational comment, such as “I see you both have really strong feelings about playing with that toy first.” Try to label the feelings without assigning blame. The idea, says Borys, is to help children learn to calm themselves and solve interpersonal problems through discussion and empathy. You want to help toddlers recognize these social cues that indicate they’ve caused harm, she adds. “Toddlers are fairly new to the planet,” says Wilkin. “They don’t always understand cause and effect. You want children to learn what actions caused someone to be hurt or upset, so they learn to stop themselves from doing those actions in the future.” Keep in mind that empathy and self-restraint are two huge skills for a toddler to master, so don’t expect them to be learned after the first (or 101st) time there’s a conflict. {pagebreak} Acknowledge the emotions Without being judgmental about who did what to whom, acknowledge the feelings of both children with statements like “You really like that truck and it’s hard when there’s only one to play with” and “You didn’t like it when he grabbed it without asking.” Use simple language to help both children understand the sequence of events and their parts in a conflict. “It’s also good to encourage the upset child to express how she feels,” says Borys. “So when she, in turn, hurts another child one day, you can remind her how it felt when she was on the receiving end.” “We always try to get Maggie to understand what’s happened if she’s hurt her sister’s feelings,” says Deidre Strohm, a Los Angeles mother of two in describing her 4-year-old daughter’s dealings with an older sister. “We’ll say something like, ‘When you break her toy, she thinks you don’t care about her stuff.’” Strohm asks her daughters to apologize only after they understand how each one’s actions have hurt the other. {pagebreak} Help find a solution Before you impose your own solution in a toddler conflict, say something like “What can we do about this?” You may be happily surprised that even young children can come up with satisfactory resolutions. “They’re more likely to follow through with a plan if both of them have a say in it,” says Wilkin. Once you sense that the child who caused harm understands how the other child feels, encourage her to apologize. As for making amends, ask the child who’s upset to say what would make her feel better. “Sometimes the hurt one will want to hear the other say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and sometimes she’ll just want a turn with the truck,” says Wilkin. Coaxing young children through this delicate mediation takes more time than if you just tell them what to do, but if your goal is to encourage empathy, then it’s time well spent. You’re not always going to be there in your toddler’s confl icts, so you want to help her eventually learn to solve them herself. {pagebreak} Model the behavior you want You, of course, are the one your toddler watches—and learns from—all day, every day. If you’re not afraid to admit making a mistake, or to offer a genuine apology, then your child will intuitively understand how it’s done. And when you apologize to your child for inadvertently causing her harm, you provide the most important lesson of all. Such gestures show respect, compassion and regret—ingredients of a true apology. The same goes for that other potent skill in living peaceably with others: the ability to forgive. If you can forgive your child for making mistakes, then she will know how good it feels to be forgiven, and be more likely to forgive others. Nicole Gregory is a Los Angeles writer and the mother of an 11-year-old boy.

The importance of teaching your toddler the meaning behind those words.

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