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Sorry seems to be the hardest word

I was chatting to a friend about writing this article, and he told me an anecdote involving his three-year-old daughter, Emily. When he arrived at nursery one morning, Emily’s key person asked to see him. She led them both over to a dilapidated sofa and, looking at Emily, said, “I’m very sad to say that Emily did this to our lovely sofa.” Somewhat bemused, my friend found himself staring at the sofa trying to envisage what one small child could have done to make it look so decrepit. Emily seemed equally baffled, though she picked up that something was amiss. Her father could tell that she didn’t properly realise she was being reprimanded, or why.


Emily’s father spoke to her key person in private. I won’t share the details of that conversation. In brief, it turned out that a group of children, including Emily, had been bouncing on the sofa the previous day and ‘broken it’. Emily’s key person had asked to see her father in the full expectation that he would tell her off, there and then, and get her to apologise.


This anecdote tells us a lot about apologising in itself, and particularly regarding young children.


An apology is something that is said, written or shown through gesture to express sorrow and regret for the hurt or trouble caused. For this to happen, there are two essential requirements: the recognition of a wrongdoing and an expression of true sorrow.


We are all familiar with those empty apologies produced in response to, ‘Say sorry.’ A non-apology of this kind could quite easily have happened in Emily’s case. Similarly, we regularly witness public apologies from prominent figures where the main function is to exonerate themselves rather than make genuine amends for their transgression.


Having said that, nurturing children who are able to apologise is of great importance and pride to many parents and practitioners. How, then, can this be achieved without getting caught up in the fruitlessness of manners by rote?




As long ago as 1931, Susan Isaacs made her views clear on the matter in her parenting column in The Nursery World. In response to an anxious mother, Isaacs (using the pseudonym Ursula Wise) states, “If one cares only for obtaining the form of politeness, the actual words “please”, “thank you”, “sorry”, and so on, one can as a rule get these by strict demands and punishments. But obtained in that way most of us would feel they were quite worthless.” She continues, “The whole point about these conventional modes of speech is surely that they indicate a real wish to please others, and a real sense of considerateness and friendliness. If one can ensure that state of mind, the conventional speech can be left to take care of itself. The state of mind, if genuine, will last on through life and ensure happy social relations wherever the child goes. The form of words, unless it springs from friendliness in the mind, will only last as long as we are there to demand it.”


Few people would disagree with Isaacs. An environment in which respect and courtesy is shown to all is likely rub off on some of the children some of the time and, potentially, reap positive effects for years to come.


In accordance with Isaacs’s advice, modelling desired behaviour is common practice for those who spend time with young children. It is not unusual for parents to say, ‘Thank you,’ on behalf of their young child who is not yet able to or ready to say it. Similarly, if a group of children are playing and a diligently built tower of bricks gets knocked over, a practitioner may say something like, “Oh, what a shame that happened, you were concentrating so hard on it, and I can see by your face that now you feel sad (or angry, cross, upset). Shall we build it again together?” This sort of intervention acknowledges the child’s feelings, expresses regret for what happened and tries to make amends.


Sallie Poppleton, Baby Room Leader at Wood Street Nursery in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, reflects on her practice, “Whilst I’m keen to support and encourage children to be decent, caring and compassionate people, I don't get them to apologise.” She explains why, “Many practitioners insist that children ‘say sorry’ and sometimes include a threat of sanctions. A battle of wills may follow, or the child obliges and says sorry just because they want to get back to playing, or to be obedient. Another child may remain silent and look confused. It can waste so much time.”


In line with Isaacs’s reply to the worried mother, Sallie emphasises the value of learning through the example of adults. “I frequently apologise to children, using my apology not only to show empathy, but also to help extend their language and communication skills.”


Sallie gave several examples of this, “E aged 20 months, said to me, ‘More banana?’ I replied, ‘Sorry, E, all the bananas have been eaten - we need to buy some more.’ C aged 22 months exclaimed, ‘Mummy!’ when the buzzer rang. I said, ‘Sorry, this is T's mummy, but your mummy will be on the train. She’ll be here soon.’ Also, one day I was changing B aged 26 months, and struggling a bit, so I said, "I am sorry this is taking a long time, I’m getting in a tangle with your tights and dungarees."


Saying sorry is a constant thread through Sallie’s practice. “I’m not always sure my apologies and explanations are really understood by the child, but my tone and the context may help lay the foundations for them learning what an apology is”.


Sallie went on to talk about how she would handle a situation where she thought the child should apologise, such as cases of hitting and biting, or when one child grabs a toy from another. Her rule of thumb is to talk it through, with particular focus on the various feelings involved. Sallie never asks for a ‘sorry’, but tries to help the child make amends, “I look for ways to repair the situation: for example, to return the snatched toy or fetch a tissue for the upset child.”




Alison Kriel, Independent Education and Leadership Consultant, thinks that being able to apologise sincerely is a complex matter and something that many adults struggle with, “It is little wonder that some children struggle with being able to apologise if they are in a context where it is rarely modelled for them. I recall a conversation with a pupil who had been hurt by his parent and his biggest upset was, ‘Mummy didn’t even say sorry’. More hurt was caused by the lack of apology than the physical hurt.”


Alison, in her position as Headteacher, spent a lot of time working with children on apologising, “I was often asked to speak to a child because things had gone badly wrong. The first thing I would do was to help them find calm by inviting them to read, or do a puzzle, for example. Though this may have looked like a reward, it’s impossible to resolve a difficult situation from a place of anger, upset, embarrassment or fear.” Alison, in agreement with Isaacs, was not at all interested in the quick-fix ‘sorry’, but wanted to help foster apologies based on listening, reflection, and the desire to become a better person.


Alison continues, “When the child was ready to move forward, I’d say, ‘We have a problem and I wonder how we can fix it together?’ This enabled the child to know they were not alone but would have support. It also helped them to acknowledge what the problem was and own their part in it.” Alison found this to be an effective strategy, irrespective of the child’s age, gender, culture. She adds, “Also, I took pride in the fact that when the pupils came to see me they knew I was going to be part of the solution rather than the person they were in trouble with – this trust always felt like a privilege.”


It seems, then, that a very clear message has emerged: there is no quick route to children learning how to apologise in a meaningful way. It takes time and work from them and the adults around them. Throughout her work with parents, irrespective of the problem, Susan Isaacs consistently promoted a ‘kind and compassionate environment’, where caring for each other is of the utmost importance. Surely this cannot be a bad place to start?


Finally, it is worth remembering Isaacs’s words of reassurance to her correspondent, “If a little girl of 3 years and 8 months were perfectly polite all the time one would surely suspect she was a little machine and not a human being at all!”



Caroline Vollans
Having taught in primary schools for fifteen years, Caroline Vollans trained as a psychoanalyst. She now works as an author and freelance writer.

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