When Your Toddler Won’t Say “Sorry”

I know I promised to write about this but haven’t done so until now…

When I was in Melbourne, my parents, hubby, Gavin and I were eating Vietnamese Beef Noodles in Pho Dzung in Richmond.  Ordinarily, we bring trains for Gavin to play with but this time we forgot.  Gavin, being Gavin, was extremely restless, so we gave him a sauce plate to fiddle with.  He threw it onto the floor once and hubby told him not to do it again.

While we were eating, I heard the plate clatter on the floor and quickly turned to Gavin.  He whipped around in his chair with the guiltiest expression on his face.  He immediately hunched down and peered up at us through the corners of his eyes.

Gavin learned to say “please” and “thank you” fairly early so I thought teaching him to say “sorry” would be just as easy.  Boy, was I grossly mistaken!  We’ve been trying to teach Gavin to say “sorry” since we started teaching him “please” and “thank you”.  He has no problems with the latter two, but “sorry” really seems to be the hardest word.

I know he can say “sorry” because he’s said it before and quite earnestly, too.  So whenever he does wrong, I ask him to apologise and then give him a big hug and a kiss to show him all is forgotten.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t make saying it any easier – at least, not when your name is Gavin.  Hubby says Gavin is stubborn – just like my side of the family – and quite honestly, I have to admit that my Mum has trouble saying “sorry”, too.

I digress… we were talking about Gavin, the dropped sauce plate and his refusal to say “sorry”.  We tried all manner of psychology to get him to apologise – talking about going to see “rainbow-coloured fish” in front of him, refusing to acknowledge his presence or to talk to him…  None of it worked.  After a while, he apologised to me, saying, “Sorry Mummy,” several times.

I thanked him for apologising to me and told him I was proud of him for it but that he needed to say “sorry” to Daddy, too.  Now this was like trying to draw blood from a stone!  Being Gavin’s main caregiver and the milk source, I believe it gives me greater authority over Gavin compared to Daddy, the grandparents or his aunts and uncles, but even that authority isn’t enough sometimes.  I usually find withdrawing my attention is sufficient to get his cooperation.  Although it might not take effect immediately, he usually comes around eventually.

You could tell that Gavin was trying in his own way to make it up to Daddy because he had taken one of the stray bean sprouts from the plate and was toying with it at the edge of Daddy’s bowl, but he still wouldn’t apologise.  It was heartbreaking to see my two boys at loggerheads with each other.  Hubby took him out of the restaurant and made him stand in the corner of a shop that was shut and still he wouldn’t apologise to Daddy.  Although the original plan was to head into town to see the Christmas display in the Myers windows, we ended up heading straight home.  As we were going home, we past a playground and I was struck with a sudden inspiration.

I said to Gavin, “Look, Gavin!  A playground!  Do you want to go play?”

He nodded, “Yes.”

Then I said, “You have to ask Daddy first.”

This time he readily apologised to Daddy.  I don’t know if it was right to bribe him like that to say “sorry” but it worked.

Last night, we had another episode of stubborness with Gavin.  We were at Cold Storage in Ikano picking up some groceries.  While hubby was paying for the groceries, I was checking the expiry date on some biscuits and Gavin was playing with the barrier they usually put up if they want to close the counter.  Hubby told him several times not to play but Gavin couldn’t keep his hands to himself.  In the end, he accidentally whacked the guy in the queue behind us with the barrier.

Hubby tried to get Gavin to apologise but he just refused to.  In the end hubby apologised to the guy and we expressed to Gavin our disappointment in him for refusing to apologise.  I took him to the car and strapped him in.  He didn’t move until we were halfway home.  If you know anything about Gavin, you’ll realise that this is extremely rare behaviour for him in the car.  He is normally squirming around, looking for things to do, asking for stories, singing to himself and doing a whole host of other things.  To see him sit so still in complete silence was uncanny.

Halfway home, he said he wanted “Ah Mah” (my MIL), which is what he normally says when he realises he has no allies in present company.  He still refused to apologise so we ignored him again.  He then twisted in his seat until he was lying on his side, shut his eyes and pretended to be asleep.  I took the following picture hoping the flash would startle him back into opening his eyes but got no reaction:

When we got home, we left him in the car while we unloaded the groceries.  He still wouldn’t budge.  Hubby then took him out of the car and I told him I wouldn’t bathe him if he wouldn’t say sorry.  He went straight to my MIL who then talked to him in quiet undertones about why he was wrong and should say “sorry”.  He still wouldn’t apologise but when I took him into my arms, he gave me a hug and a kiss. I don’t know if I should have accepted that as an apology, but I didn’t.  He still refused to say the “s” word so I took him upstairs and handed him over to Daddy who gave him a bath (ordinarily, Gavin mostly only wants me to bathe him).  It was only after his bath that he came to me and apologised.  After which I read him five Thomas stories before bedtime.

My SIL2 who has worked with countless young children told me it was common for a lot of children to be reluctant to apologise.  To reassure myself, I googled the topic and found a varied response from parents about young toddlers and apologising.

Some felt that two year old toddlers were too young to understand the meaning of being sorry so to expect a toddler to say “sorry” is meaningless.  But if a toddler can say “please” when he wants something and “thank you” when he gets it, why not “sorry”?  Gavin has been signing “please” and “thank you” even before he could say the words.  I think we underestimate how much our toddlers perceive.

And I also think it is incorrect to assume that a toddler doesn’t understand the hurt another person feels.  While in Australia, Gavin spent some time with two of his cousins C and A.  C and A were often at loggerheads with each other and at any one time, one of them would be crying.  When C started crying, Gavin would be by his side looking like he wanted to do something to make C stop crying but not knowing what to do.  Then when A ran to her room in tears, Gavin followed and stood by her until she stopped.  Now I might be reading too much into it but I’m pretty sure that was as close to empathy as I’m going to get from a toddler.

That said, I think AP Dad Dave makes a very pertinent statement when he asks whether it makes sense to insist that a toddler say “sorry” even if you know he doesn’t mean it.  Even as adults, we often say “sorry” not because we mean it but because we know it is expected.  So isn’t it right to teach our children to say “sorry” if not to help them learn to live more harmoniously in this strange adult world with even stranger concepts? Besides, I am inclined to agree with Dave that our children do indeed have some inkling of the meaning of sorry, at the very least that it is a word we use to express the terrible feeling that we feel inside when we do something wrong.

Even if you don’t believe a child can grasp the concept of sorry, there are some that assume forcing a child to say sorry at this point is akin to raising an automaton.  More importantly, we should be aiming to raise thinking children.  Whilst I am in wholehearted agreement with raising thinking children as opposed to obedient robots, I have one difficulty on this point.  Firstly, the aim is not to force a child to say sorry but to help him understand the need to say sorry.  There is an explanation why he needs to say sorry and where he went wrong.

By helping a child understand the thought processes behind his action, the reaction and the outcome, isn’t that helping him learn to think for himself?  If we don’t start now when awareness of self is setting in, then when exactly do we start?  After he has knowingly “gotten away with it” several times and then wonders why he now has to say “sorry” when he didn’t before?

Besides, we often teach kids a lot of things before they can fully grasp the concept.  The whole idea of encouraging a child to say sorry is to help a child learn about remorse for his negative actions.  If we don’t teach him, how are we expecting him to learn it?  If doesn’t make sense to teach a young child to say “sorry” because he won’t understand its meaning, then why do we even bother with “please” and “thank you”?  A lot of children will say “please” and “thank you” even before they understand what it means.

I had initially intended to open this topic up for debate and discussion but I guess it is quite clear where I stand on the topic.  Nevertheless, I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the subject.  Perhaps I should make this a QoW for next Monday?


  1. Yes, it is so with my son as well. I think as long as he’s shown remorse, that is more important to me than him saying the word “sorry”. Like a hug to the injured party can also be “sorry”. I’ve also read before that it is important for your children to see you apologise (monkey see, monkey do) so take the opportunity to show your children that you know how to apologise when you need to. Hello and goodbye are hard words for my older son, too. I think it has a lot to do with character, too. But like you said, we can only keep trying.

  2. Caarolin says:

    Honestly I reading so vigorously, hoping you have the answer to this situation. I have a 2 year old and saying “sorry” and “hello” and “goodbye are the hardest words for him to say but especially sorry sometimes he only says it because he wants to go and play or wants something to eat. I try to tell him why he needs to say “sorry” and to be kind. I can only keep trying.

  3. Now that Gavin’s older, “sorry” is a little easier but it’s still a difficult word for him. I still don’t understand it fully but I get the clash of wills behind it. Though why it should revolve particularly around the word “sorry”, I don’t know.

  4. Sam says:

    My partner’s daughter is going through the same problem. A trivial act ~ pulling off about 3.5 metres of toilet roll, which I then had to re-roll, prompted an incredible outburst from her when asked to apologise. It’s now six hours later, including nap time, and she continues to break into total hysterics at the prospect of saying ‘sorry’.

    We’re trying to get her to repeat the words “I am sorry, and I will never do it again”, but the reactions are totally incredible. She is normally very well behaved and talkative (barring the occasional dinner incident), and this is completely uncharacteristic behaviour.

  5. figur8 says:

    Thanks for the links. They’re great. I’ve been meaning to look deeper into this area for some time. Just been a bit busy with Chinese New Year around the corner.

  6. valeriechuan says:

    hehe..actually i feel it’s just another stage of growing up.

    But i asked my uncle who is a pediatric cardiologist, for his professional opinion, and he said

    “Persistence and making sure that the kid understand that what they did is wrong.
    At 2 years they can understand basic wrong and right. by Piagets stages of developement, they want control.”

    Some websites which i found online about “Piagets stages of dvlpment”:


    good luck! hope you find his advice helpful =)

  7. figur8 says:

    Sigh… isn’t it? If you learn anything more on the psychology of this topic, I’m all ears…

  8. valeriechuan says:

    oh so tough topic..child who wouldn say “sorry”..


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