I’d like to begin by admitting that I once said it. You’ve heard someone say it. You’ve probably said it yourself.
“You need to say you’re sorry.”
Those words are instructed to children by adults around them. They are told this from the moment they can form the word and long before they will ever be able to understand it. Most people believe that it’s a form of politeness; like please and thank you, it needs to be practiced. There seems to be a commonly held belief that the way we teach the concept of “sorry” is through forcing the words and somehow we believe the concept will follow. Maria Montessori taught us to recognize the innate developmental goodness of children and see that it is the environment that prevents them from realizing that rightful goodness.
First, let’s look at the word “sorry.” To feel sorry means to feel regret, sympathy, or pity. These are awfully intense emotions for children so young to understand and be expected to feel when demanded. It can be asked at this point, “What is the harm in their saying it? How else do we teach them to say ‘sorry’ when they have done something unacceptable or hurtful?” My answer to this is: what are we teaching them by making them say it? We are teaching them that saying one word negates anything that they have done. That they do not have to right a wrong; they just have to say a word. Children do not learn to empathize by continuously saying a word empty of meaning and having everything be ok. Instead, in that one moment, we have the opportunity to teach children about the concept of empathy.
Empathy is one of the fundamental moral emotions. It’s a feeling that compels people to act compassionately. It is not something that matures on its own- Empathy must be learned. Caregivers play an important role in helping their children acquire empathy by guiding them towards it from infancy, by acting as an “emotion coach,” and by setting an example of empathetic behavior. Teaching empathy at an early age does two important things: it gets the caregivers into the habit of noticing and seizing teachable moments, and it creates a seamless transition for children from understanding verbal instructions to later being able to act. Here’s an example:
Sally is running on the playground with her friends. She is running so fast that she accidently bumps into Mary who falls to the ground. Sally continues running without realizing she has knocked anyone over. A teacher, standing near the accident, calls for Sally to please come over. The teacher bends down to ask Mary if she is hurt. When Sally returns to the accident she sees her friend Mary lying on the ground. Sally holds a hand out for Mary and helps her back up. She then brushes the woodchips off of Mary’s back and asks if she is hurt. Sally then invites Mary to run with her.
Sally’s spontaneous reaction of empathy, such as providing comfort and support, is a result of previous instruction and teaching moments with caregivers. Instead of telling a child to say “sorry,” we should be focusing on showing him what has happened and that it is his responsibility to make amends.
The question now becomes, how do we teach empathy? We begin at an early age with helping infants and toddlers identify their emotions while they are occurring. They feel all of the emotions that adults feel but they lack experience identifying, labeling, and managing them. When caregivers help children name what they feel, children easily make sense of their emotional world. “You are angry that you dropped your bowl.” “You are frustrated that the puzzle piece won’t fit.” “You are sad that Daddy left for work.” As the child begins to develop a stronger vocabulary your job evolves into that “emotional coach” and you can narrate conflict resolutions. Here’s an example:
John, a four year old, is playing with his new Thomas the Train Engine. His two year old brother, David, pulls the toy from John’s hand and begins to play in a similar manner. John grabs the toy back and hits David on the head. David’s cries bring you, their ever patient parent, into the room. After calming them down enough to understand the events that led to the tears, you:
- Ask John to say he is sorry and send him to a time out for hitting David
- Ask David to say he is sorry and send him to a time out for taking John’s toy
- Ask both children to say they’re sorry and put them in a time out while taking some much needed Tylenol
- Realize this is a prime opportunity to teach empathy and thank Ms. Sarah
If you picked D, then you have been listening, Empathetic Coach! Don’t worry; I’ll walk you through what the conversation with David and John could look like.
(Depending on the vocabulary and social development of your children, you may have to alter this conversation to allow for more guidance or more reflection, or to allow for them to carry on the conversation under your supervision.)
“John, please tell me what you are feeling? You are angry that David took your train. You were still working with that train. Please tell David how you are feeling. David, did you hear what John said? He said he is angry that you took his train; he was still working with it. David, please tell me what you are feeling? You are sad that John hit you. It hurt to be hit on the head. Your head is hurting. You wanted a chance to use the train. David, please tell John how you are feeling. John did you hear what David said? He is sad that you hit him. It hurt his head. John, what could you have done instead of hitting David when he took your train? You could have used your words to ask for it back, you could have tapped me on the shoulder for help. David, what could you have done instead of taking John’s train? You could have used your words to ask for a turn, you could have found another toy to play with while John was using it. John, you may continue playing with your train. David, would you like me to help you find another toy to play with?”
I know, it’s repetitive, but that’s the point! With something so important as empathy on the line, repeating and really illustrating how each other is feeling is beneficial to a strong understanding of empathy.
Maria Montessori said, “If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for they are the makers of men.” We should all strive for those future generations to have a stronger grasp of empathy.