Do Toddlers Understand “Say You’re Sorry?”

I’ve been thinking about this today, as I hear other moms discipline their kids (and me too!) say “that’s not nice, tell her you’re sorry!”

What does saying sorry even mean?

Do you (I don’t) think toddlers, especially young ones, understand what they are saying and what is meant when they say “ I’m sorry I threw that ball at your face?”

I’m trying not to do the whole “say you are sorry” thing right now, because I’m pretty sure Lucas has no idea who I am or what planet I’m from when I say that. But, I find myself saying it anyways, as if it’s a habit or a “natural” thing to do when disciplining, you know?

What are your thoughts?

Published by Samantha Mellen

Certified personal trainer & health coach helping women transform their lives through fitness, abundant mindset coaching and internal peace. Mom of two boys, living life in Alaska.

14 thoughts on “Do Toddlers Understand “Say You’re Sorry?”

  1. I tell my kids to apologize, not “say sorry” because then they have to think about it, not just repeat “sorry”. They have to look someone in the eye, say what they did wrong & why (“I hit you and that hurt and is not nice”) then give a hug. Maybe they don't say “sorry” but they get what an apology is supposed to be for. (They're 2 and 3 if that helps)

  2. My mom always told us, “Sorry means you won't do it again.” She seemed to always say that to us when she asked us to apologize. That taught us.

    But no, I don't think young toddlers understand it. It might be more useful to say that it hurt so-and-so's feeling and that it wasn't nice. Explain, but don't expect an apology at this age 😉

  3. We don't really do the “say you're sorry” thing (maybe a bit?) but I've noticed that Peeper's started apologizing to us on her own for things.

    Usually things like spilling something, which really is not a big deal nor does she “get in trouble” for it – we just hand her a towel and say “ok – clean it up.”

    (When she's not saying “uhoh seh-tee-oh!” (spaghetti-os) all innocent-like when I totally watched her dump the cup of water on the floor!)

    It's kind of sad when she keeps saying “Sowwy. Sowwy. Sowwy” over and over, but I realized that when we apologize to her for something (especially if we accidentally hurt her somehow) we say it over and over, too.

    So, I guess she thinks that's just how it's done.

  4. I think it's social conditioning. Lots of things we do with toddlers or tell them to do, they don't understand at first. I think the parents that also explain why to the child why they should apologize, or what the apology means, are on the right track. They are building the mental concept with their child while also building the social conditioning (having good manners in general is all social conditioning).

  5. i love all the thoughts from the ladies above. i also think modeling is important in the early years. at a marriage conference, my hubby and i learned to sit knee-to-knee and say “i'm sorry i_____. Will you forgive me?” and the other person says “I forgive you.” we try to do it in front of the kids when possible, especially when they have seen us argue. in any event, it's important for the kids to see/hear you apologize when necessary: “mommy is sorry i yelled at you when you dropped your cheerios. i was frustrated.” i think they start to get it once they hear it in a meaningful way.

  6. If you want your child to say sorry, you have to have them practice it–just like please or thank you. In general, we use it if something happens like an accidental or on purpose hit. Poor daddy and his groin have taken a lot of beatings lately. I don't typically use time out, but for offenses like that, I do. I explain to her on the way to her crib, and on the way back that she shouldn't hurt other people, that it's not nice, and she needs to say she is sorry. She now says sorry on her own for incidental things like bumping into us, because we also model that behavior, apologizing to her if we bump her.

  7. I definitely think it is good practice for the future. Understanding will come as they practice it time and time again. It is the best way for them to learn. Also having an older sibling say sorry to the younger sibling…even if the younger may not fully understand. It goes both ways.

  8. I think this is a very personal choice for parents. I don't think kids understand what an apology means until they are older (as in 5 or 6). Prior to that saying “I'm sorry” is not authentic for them. When I say I'm sorry I always try to say “Next time I'll blah blah” instead of focusing on the fact that I yelled or whatever it was. Modeling goes a long way for kids. But any way you do it, if you're a caring parent your kids will learn to apologize. Do what feels right to you and that'll be what's right for your kids.

  9. I don't think they quite understand yet. However, just like saying please and thank you, I think it's important to teach proper behavior from early on! When I tell my kids to say “I'm sorry” I also include the reason why they need to say it.

  10. Toddler nothing. I don't think my 10 year old knows what “sorry” means. Especially when he says sorry then does it again 5 minutes later. Eventually tho if you make him do it enough then the whole 'cause and affect' thing will kick in.

  11. My almost 3-year-old says she's sorry when she accidentally hurts one of us, patting wherever she hurt to comfort. I think they understand to a point, or at least understand that it's the right thing to do when you hurt someone. And that they shouldn't do it again. So I think that even if they don't completely understand it's still good to teach them to apologize. 🙂

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