Contact Us

When Sorry Isn't Enough

When Sorry Isn't Enough


It’s amazing how much learning can take place on a little trip to the park. It was a gorgeous day and my kids were having a blast at the playground. I sat on a bench on the outer ring of the play area taking in the beauty of my children immersed in play. My six-year-old was busy refining her climbing skills,her eager, calloused hands reaching urgently for the next rung. My five-year-old was pumping diligently on the swing set, her dimpled knees bending in perfect rhythm with the swing’s up’s and down’s. And my industrious three-year-old was hard at work making mud-rock pies in a plastic cup she had discovered... It was sheer joy watching them each do their own thing, enthralled in their own little worlds.

It was sheer joy watching them each do their own thing

I honed in on my three-year-old as a little boy about her age plunked himself down next to her in hopes of joining in on her riveting geological experiment. She acknowledged his presence with brief eye contact and continued pouring and patting. He reached for the cup in her hand. She pulled it away and grunted firmly, “Mine!” Frustrated and wounded by her rejection, the boy clenched his fist, leaned back, and belted my daughter right on the nose.

His mother was sitting next to me, and we both saw the scene go down. I ran to my daughter’s aid and rocked her in my arms. His mother casually approached him and said in a sing-songy, preschool teacher-esque voice, “No, no. We don’t hit. Say 'sorry.'”

Following his mother’s lead, the boy came close to my daughter and declared in a proud, almost confident voice, “Sorry!” He looked pleased with himself, and his mother congratulated him for being a “good boy,” for apologizing. She returned to the bench, and he went off to play.

As I sat in the sand cradling and calming my shocked and hurt little girl, I couldn’t help but think, “Sorry” just doesn’t cut it. I get that three-year-olds typically don’t have the emotional maturity or the verbal skills to communicate their feelings clearly. And I get that it’s natural for young kids to become frustrated and act on impulses. Believe me, I get it. But feeding a kid a line to repeat after he has purposely caused harm to another person is down right ineffective parenting.

Kids need to be taught to take responsibility for their actions. This does not come naturally to them. Our job as parents is to help guide and mold our little people into becoming caring and compassionate big people. We live in a world of action. It doesn’t only matter what you say. It matters what you do. Fundamentally, hitting is rarely right. So if a child acts on an impulse and hits someone else in a non-threatening and unprovoked situation, the consequence for that behavior must to be more than lip service.

Kids need to be taught to take responsibility for their actions

What I expect to see from my kids when they have caused harm to another child (intentionally or not) is a sense of regret and a sense of concern for the kid who just got whacked. Saying “Sorry” is meaningless unless it is accompanied by a feeling of remorse and an offer to help. “Sorry” is just a word. It doesn’t heal and it doesn’t repair. But offering a helping hand to help someone we’ve accidentally hurt and showing a genuine desire to make amends can help mend the hurt... or at least set the stage for it.

This idea is beautifully illustrated in this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash. When Joseph was young, his brothers threw him into a pit and left him there to die. Big “no-no.” Joseph decides after 22 years post-pit that he is going to reveal himself to his brothers as the healthy and thriving vice-Pharaoh he has become. Joseph sets his siblings up in virtual re-enactment of their previous situation, and waits to see what they will do. Joseph's brothers recognize the parallel between their current situation and their former. This time, they will not leave their younger brother to die. When Joseph sees their remorse and their resolve to behave differently, he reveals himself to them and forgives them.

Forgiveness is not a simple thing… at any age. Joseph was evolved, mature, and humble. He recognized the Divine Providence inherent in every aspect of his life’s story. One would be hard pressed to find these traits in any three-year-old. I don’t expect for a minute that had the little boy in the park felt bad about what he did, sincerely asked my daughter for forgiveness, and invited her to play, that she would have accepted. She wouldn’t have been ready yet… she was still hurting. But the point here is to teach our children to do the right thing regardless of the outcome. It doesn’t matter if my daughter forgives him or not. It matters that he tried.

During certain days or phases, our children will misbehave more often than not. That’s part of testing boundaries, gaining independence, and growing. I can’t control their behavior or their feelings. “Sorry” is just a word. It doesn’t heal and it doesn’t repair But I can let my kids know what my expectations are and guide them towards a sense of natural consequence. I want them to feel distressed and concerned if they’ve hurt someone; I’m trying to raise compassionate people. I want them to understand that mistakes are okay as long as they take responsibility for them, even when it’s difficult and embarrassing. I want them to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that no matter what they’ve done or failed to do, they always have another chance to do the right thing.

My daughter’s nose healed just fine. But she did steer clear of that boy for the rest of the afternoon. When we returned home later that evening, my girls had a squabble at the dinner table. In the midst of their bickering, one of them accidentally spilled the pitcher of water all over the table, drowning her sister’s meal into a soggy mess. The injured party started to cry. The one responsible for the spill announced unprompted, “I made a mistake, and I’m going to clean it up.” I beamed in the kitchen. I handed her a rag, winked at her, and congratulated her for doing the right thing. It was so satisfying for me to see my kid take responsibility for her actions… Oh, how I love watching these little people grow.

Sarah Zadok is a Jewish educator and lecturer, a childbirth professional and a freelance writer. She lives in the Golan Heights with her husband and five children.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1000 characters remaining
Anonymous Rochester, NY February 18, 2015

I could be even worse This scenario reminded of something that happened nearly 30 years ago. As a group of us were preparing for a Sisterhood charity event in the back yard of one member, our young daughters (approximately age 4) were playing together. Suddenly, one little girl pushed another down intentionally. Immediately her mother sternly admonished her, telling her it was wrong, pointing out that the other girl was hurt and that she should say she is sorry. A third mother (her child was not involved) immediately chimed in "Don't tell your daughter what emotion she should feel." Needless to say, several of us were stunned. She went on to say that remorse is a "natural" emotion, and either a child would feel it or they wouldn't, but it shouldn't be demanded. I spoke up in defense of the mother who was trying to teach her child about proper behavior, and added my two cents that it was rather inappropriate to berate the MOTHER in front of the children, too. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI January 17, 2011

Sorry Isn't Always Enough My own mother punished me before AND after apologizing to people for hurting them, because she wanted me to remember what I did and not do it again. She told me if I did do it again, my punishment would be twice as harsh!

Most children have shorter memories and attention spans. That's why parents repeat themselves like "broken records" to make sure their children don't forget what they're told.

If children have to apologize, they have to mean it - it's NOT enough to apologize to avoid getting punished! Reply

t.b. February 19, 2010

To anonymous, teaneck nj... Myabe you or your co-workers don't use that sort of tone of vioce but I find that most, not all, most pre-school teachers use that fake high voice. Reply

Anonymous Teaneck, NJ November 29, 2009

I read your article.There is one thing, and it might sound petty, that I have to comment on. You wrote that the mother said in a " sing song pre-school teacher-esque voice: say sorry." I am a pre-school teacher, and I never use a falsetto voice when one child hurts another. And truthfully, my co-workers don't either. We take these incidents very seriously, and we know that we are the people who shape these children for years to come. Unfortunately, when mothers think that we use "falsetto" voices, or say random words that have no meaning to us or to the children, it becomes even more difficult for us to do our jobs. You have no idea how many deep, intelligent and professional conversations early childhood educators have about whether or not we should ask children to say "sorry" if they hurt someone. We always try to do right by both the perpetrator and the victim. Please try not to denigrate a group of professionals who really know young children very well. Reply

Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY November 29, 2009

Doesn't Help I can remember something that happened years ago, when my oldest daughter was just a toddler. She was playing quietly in the park when a slightly older boy, who was wobbling as he was running, came over to her and deliberately pushed her down. As I grabbed my daughter, I noticed a large bandage on the boy's head. I would guess (without ever knowing for sure) that the boy had a serious medical problem that affected his behavior. There were no apologies from the boy or his mother, nor did I expect any. Such children find themselves unwanted in the playground (see other posting about the author's brother, who unfortunately became one of those children). People are simply not going to let their children play with another child who "can't play nicely." The painful shunning by other children will speak more loudly to the parents to Do Something About My Child's Behavior than a hundred lectures would. Reply

Kelly Queens, USA August 12, 2009

sorry I recently had coffee with a friend and her almost-two-year-old son. He had little toy trucks that he was playing with, and if he threw it or knocked it over, she simply said, "Well, go get it!" She said is very nicely and calmly, and the kid went and got the trucks. I was amazed. It gave me much more faith in children than what I normally have, ... The only problem with this article is that it doesn't elucidate HOW to make a child feel remorse. Yes, the child could have helped the author's daughter, but that doesn't mean he would feel remorse. These are abstract and complicated things to teach a child, and while I clearly commend her for teaching it to her children--I wish I knew HOW for when I have children in the future. Reply

cece ellisville, mo April 24, 2008

wow im 14 and i thought that was an amazing and inspiring article i wish someone would have taught me remorse from a young age because i just recently went thorough a very hard time with my family because of my terrible attitude and one thing i needed to do desperatly was take responsibility for my actions and i fixed everything but anyway i jsut loved your article and ill keep that in mind when i have my own kids.
PS: and also it would be great if someone could comment and tell me what else i can do to improve my relationship with my parents. Reply

kate Brisbane, Australia November 19, 2007

What could have been done? I have heard lots of talk a about encouraging the children to feel remorse, and "take sharge of" the things they did wrong, but I have yet to hear some suggestions on how? I feel it is a very valid point, and as a ChildCare teacher, Nanny and counselor, i understand that parents are becoming younger (teenage parents) and knowledge of child raising is decreasing. I'd love to open the discussion to some ideas on just HOW we teach our children to do the right thing. First and formost, in my humble opinion, would be modeling the behaviour, admiting when we make mistakes, and openly trying to rectify them.

Karrol Castner New York, NY April 1, 2007

The most frustrating thing for me about playgrounds is when something like this happens. One can think of other things for this other mother do but it is not proper to ask her to parent differently; and then you are left with a small girl crying about her physical pain and in pychological shock- how do you explain it to her? How does a mother explain that wrongs done to them are to have no consequences but it's not okay for them to turn around and do the same thing. My daughter, learned the word mine on the playground when things were repeatedly snatched out of her hands. She's now very defensive about toys she's playing with, where she was once very emphatic about those around her. It'sa parallel to the world in which we live though- harsh reality. Reply

Devora Wagner Joburg February 18, 2007

What a beautiful article!! Thanx for the inspiration!! It is so true how kids - even very young can show responsibility for their actions... Reply

Anonymous February 12, 2007

I think the mother's response made it much worse- she sent him a clear message that superficial verbal apologies are enough to make him a 'good boy' again and then she sat down as if nothing had happened. Maybe she could have demonstrated proper behavior by asking if she could do anything to help, by stroking the little girl's hair and saying something comforting. What she did do was completely vapid. Reply

Brenda Courtenay, BC January 11, 2007

Helping your child to understand.. I believe that the mother could have gone a step further.. she could have removed her child for a short "time-out" after the "sorry" and in simple language state that hitting is not acceptable. Keeping the child in the vicinity, keeps the disipline in direct relation to the action they did. Teaching a child consequences for behavior at a young age is important, waiting until they are older when they will understand better is too late... Reply

Ellen January 1, 2007

Can a 3 year old really be remorseful? I am not confident that a three-year-old can express genuine remorse. I can also make a great leap here. Your daughter will grow up and become an asset to society. That other kid is already halfway to the penitentiary. Reply

Anonymous December 28, 2006

I would like to ask you what you would have expected from the mother of the boy at that moment. There are children with severe behavioral problems. Perhaps praising him was the right thing, because maybe he hits compulsively and rarely says he is sorry? Wasn't postitive reinforcement correct, then?

I am not trivializing your daughter's pain, but you should know that mothers of children with behavioral problems suffer too. Reply

Related Topics