A Better Way to Say Sorry

A Better Way to Say Sorry

This post is part of my series on How to Shape Children’s Behavior.


“Say sorry to your brother.”

“But he’s the one who–”

“Say it!” you insist, an edge of warning in your voice.

He huffs, rolls his eyes to the side and says flatly, “Sorry.”

“Say it like you mean it,” you demand.

“Sorrrrry,” he repeats, dragging out the word slowly with bulging eyes and dripping insincerity.

You sigh in defeat and turn to #2, “Now tell him you forgive him.”

“But he doesn’t even mean it!”

“Just say it!”

“iforgiveyou…” he mutters, looking down to the side dejectedly.

“Now be nice to each other.”

Harumphy silence.

This scenario might sound all too familiar– if not from your experiences as a parent, then at least your own experiences as a child. It’s easy to see how it isn’t always that effective. You, the teacher/parent/authority, probably benefit from it the most because now at least you can feel like you did something about it, allowing you to close the case. Problem solved… now stop bickering. You know inside, however, that the offended still feels bitter, because the apology was not sincere. And while it may seem like the offender got off easy– not even having to show proper remorse or use a sincere tone–he is actually the one who loses out the most. He not only learns a poor lesson that he can get away with lies and empty words, but does not have the opportunity to experience true reconciliation and restoration of relationships. He will probably continue inflicting similar offenses, feel less remorse than he should, and undergo less positive character change than he could have.

But what alternative do you have? What else are you supposed to do? It’s not like you can force a genuine apology and repentant heart out of him, right?

Actually, you can. It’s not 100%, but it’s a lot more % than the scenario you read above. I first heard this in a teacher training program. The speaker started off with a rant about how No one teaches children how to apologize properly these days. My ears perked up, because I didn’t really know of any way to teach them other than to… just make them say it: Sorry. I knew it was not very effective, but I hadn’t considered other methods. So I held my pen at the ready, and as he listed off the “proper way to apologize,” I scribbled his words down verbatim:

I’m sorry for…
This is wrong because…
In the future, I will…
Will you forgive me?

It made a lot of sense. It seemed a little tedious, but the more I thought about it, the more it became clear that each component was necessary. Even though that was all he said about it that day, it became an integral part of my classroom culture for years to come. That day, I went back to my classroom and got some stiff cardboard and wrote the prompts clearly, labeling the poster, “How to Say Sorry.” The next afternoon, I talked with the children about apologizing properly. We went over the importance of tone of voice and body language; when I used my brattiest voice and spat out, “Well FINE then, SOR-RY!” they all laughed, because the insincerity was so obvious and the scene so familiar. I demonstrated the importance of body language, crossing my arms and rolling my eyes to the side as I mumbled, “Sorry.” When I asked if it seemed like I meant it, they all gleefully cried out “NOOOO!!!” in unison. I did a few more impressions of pathetic “sorries,” and then we got down to business. I shared with them that apologies were pointless and meaningless if people didn’t feel like the offender meant it, and if the offender didn’t actually plan to change in the future. Then I went over the poster I had made, and outlined the following points:

Sorry Poster

1) I’m sorry for…: Be specific. Show the person you’re apologizing to that you really understand what they are upset about.

Wrong: I’m sorry for being mean.
Right: I’m sorry for saying that nobody wants to be your friend.

2) This is wrong because…:This might take some more thinking, but this is one of the most important parts. Until you understand why it was wrong or how it hurt someone’s feelings, it’s unlikely you will change. This is also important to show the person you hurt that you really understand how they feel. I can’t tell you how much of a difference this makes! Sometimes, people want to feel understood more than they want an apology. Sometimes just showing understanding– even without an apology– is enough to make them feel better! 

Wrong: This is wrong because I got in trouble.
Right: This is wrong because it hurt your feelings and made you feel bad about yourself.

3) In the future, I will…:Use positive language, and tell me what you WILL do, not what you won’t do.

Wrong: In the future, I will not say that.
Right: In the future, I will keep unkind words in my head.

Now let’s practice using positive language. It’s hard at first, but you’ll get better. Can anyone think of a positive way to change these incorrect statements?

Wrong: In the future, I won’t cut.
(Right: In the future, I will go to the back of the line.)

Wrong: In the future, I won’t push.
(Right: In the future, I will keep my hands to myself.)

Wrong: In the future, I won’t take your eraser.
(Right: In the future, I will ask you if I can borrow your eraser.)

4) Will you forgive me? This is important to try to restore your friendship. Now, there is no rule that the other person has to forgive you. Sometimes, they won’t. That’s their decision. Hopefully, you will all try to be the kind of friends who will forgive easily, but that’s not something you automatically get just because you apologized. But you should at least ask for it.

As a teacher, I know that asking for forgiveness puts the offender in an uncomfortable and vulnerable place of humility. However, this seemingly obvious yet widely underused phrase is very, very powerful for both the offender and the offended. It is the key to reconciliation and often the first step in restoring friendship.

I also know that the second item, “This is wrong because…” is powerful in changing the longer-term behavior of the offending child. Forcing the child to put themselves in another’s shoes will increase empathy and help them understand better how they have hurt someone else. This exercise in trying to see themselves from someone else’s perspective can be very powerful.

After this talk, I had some volunteers come to the front to role-play some apologies. We paused at various points and reflected on how to improve the apology: was the body language sincere? Did the apologizer really capture how the other person felt? Sometimes, I would whisper instructions to one student to roll his eyes, look away, mumble, or phrase something a certain way. The students treated it like a game, trying to spot what was amiss in the apology. This was very effective, because when the time eventually came for real apologies, everyone knew we were all going by the same rules, and the expectation was set for a sincere, thorough apology.


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