Teaching children to say “I’m sorry” is a common strategy people use to help children learn the difference between right and wrong, and asking for forgiveness. “Sorry,” as a word, means very little to young children. It’s a thing that’s required, like “please” and “thank you,” but it’s more of an “adult pleaser” and has very little impact to children. So what does it really mean?
As parents and teachers work on supporting children’s emotional development, an important character trait to help establish is empathy. Showing empathy to a child is the first step in teaching them to have empathy for others. “Olivia, I see that you’re mad because your brother broke your building.” This helps Olivia understand you have empathy for her while also addressing empathy for her brother. “We need to keep him safe. What should we do to help him feel better?” Talking through problems will also support problem solving skills and cognitive development.
Developing empathy is a gradual process. Social psychologists believe that although children are born with a capacity for empathy, they can also learn to become empathetic. However, empathy has to be natural, spontaneous, and sincere. So having a child say sorry when they are not does not support empathy development.
Strategies to Support Empathy: Ages & States: Empathy Scholastic