Children aren't always sorry for the things we think are worth an apology. And even when they are, many have a hard time saying it. Some children may actually blurt out "I'm sorry" too easily, and consider it a quick way to get back to play. When a child knows how to say s/he's sorry and actually mean it, s/he gains more than a social skill. S/he also learns how to undo his or her mistakes, take responsibility for his or her actions, and consider others' feelings. In my time working with children I have learned that some will say “I’m sorry,” all on their own, while other children will do anything to make sure they never have to utter those words. Just because a child doesn’t say “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean they are mean, or have bad manners; they just yet haven’t learned yet how to take others’ perspectives. For example, three-year-olds may not be able to respond to another child's feelings if they don't share the same feelings and perspective on a situation. While building a tower with blocks, Ingrid yells loudly, "Hey! You knocked over my tower!" When questioned by the teacher, three-year-old Leah, oblivious to Ingrid's feelings of frustration, says, "Oh, I was just taking a little walk.” Because Leah didn't see herself as destructive, it is difficult for her to be empathtic toward Ingrid and her situation. Instead of telling Leah to say sorry, children first need to learn why it is important to say, “I’m sorry”. Many children at the ages 3-5 aren’t yet able to put themselves in another’s shoes. The adult can help show Leah how she knocked over Ingrid’s tower which made her sad. If the child doesn’t want to say “I’m sorry,” sometimes it helps them if a parent or teacher goes over to say it with the child. This helps the child learn to say, “I’m sorry” because it is modeling for them how we apologize. It’s also easier for the child because it may be their first time having to say they are sorry. They might be nervous about it, but with someone to help them the first time it makes it easier for the child to say all on their own the next time the situation arises.
It’s not the end of the world if a child refuses to say, “I’m sorry.” It might take the child some time to learn, but it should not be forced on them if they child is not ready. Once a child can understand the emotions that someone else feels, they will develop empathy towards others.