Why Won’t My Child Apologize?

On Saturday morning, my oldest son had a melt down.  It started while he and our youngest were playing in the “club.”  (a/k/a a very large closet under our stairs).  Our oldest, who was inside the club, opened the door and clobbered our youngest son in the head with the door knob.  Tears instantly ensued from our youngest.

I was in the kitchen.

Kory was in the bedroom.

Neither of us knew what was wrong.

And because “little bit” is our third born, and because his screams didn’t sound of broken bones, gushing blood, or missing teeth, neither of us came running.


But true.

Instead, we called out from our respective locations, asking why “little bit” was crying.

“I hit him in the head with the clubhouse door,” our oldest son said.

“Then tell him you’re sorry, get boo-boo bunny out of the freezer, and give him a hug,” I replied.

Tears ensued again.  This time, though, from the oldest boy.

“But I didn’t do it on purpose!” he yelled.

“No one said you did.  But when we hurt someone, we apologize,” I explained.  “And we do what we can to make them feel better.”

The hysteria continued.

I’m talking feet stomping.



Wheeping-sobs-coming-from-the-pillows kind of hysteria.

(And I thought girls were dramatic.)

But then I realized.

Regardless of the number of times we’ve discussed it, this child still doesn’t understand the difference between what it means to say “I’m sorry” and what it means to say “Will you forgive me?”.

And he thought that we thought he hit his brother in the head with the club door on purpose.


With a mean spirit.

And with the desire to hurt him.

All because we asked him to say “I’m sorry.”

It would be hurtful to anyone to be accused of doing something on purpose that happened on accident.  But to this particular child, who is burdened with perfectionist tendencies and a fear of failure, it was devastating.

Do your kids understand the difference between “I’m sorry” and “Will you forgive me?”

Better yet.

Have you ever thought about the distinction?

In Growing Kids God’s Way, Gary Ezzo says this about the difference between “I’m sorry” and “Will you forgive me?”:

When a child disobeys a parent, teacher, or another authority, or when he offends a sibling or a peer, he should confess his wrong and ask for forgiveness.  Asking for forgiveness from another human being is an act of humility.  At that point, you are no longer in control of the situation, nor can you dictate the conditions of your apology.

Asking for forgiveness does not mean saying, “I’m sorry.”  That phrase is reserved for unintentional, childish mistakes.


To say, “I’m sorry” is to acknowledge a mistake; to ask for forgiveness is to acknowledge motives of the heart.

Well said.

“I’m sorry” is what we say when we accidentally step on someone’s toe.  

When we accidentally drop a glass plate on the kitchen floor while trying to clear the table.  When we accidentally put something in the dryer that really really really needed to be hung dry and now won’t fit on the big toe of its owner.  (Not that this has ever happened in our house.)  It is also the first phrase we could utter as an expression of regret before we seek forgiveness.

“Will you forgive me?,” on the other hand, is reserved for purposeful and intentional wrongdoings.

It’s reserved for when we know better, and, yet, we do it anyway.

It’s an important distinction.  Because when we intentionally offend another person, we are obligated to seek forgiveness.  And this is done by asking for it, not by demanding it.

Saying “I’m sorry” is easy.  At least it is for me.  Asking for forgiveness is not.

It’s an act of humility that puts someone else in the driver’s seat.

 It’s a risk. Because there’s always a chance that forgiveness won’t be offered.

Until Kory and I took Growing Kids God’s Way, I was characterized by saying “I’m sorry.”  It took a lot of work to change my language.  And it’s still very difficult for me.  Every time.

But when I’ve wronged someone and I ask for forgiveness, it begins a process of restoration in that relationship unlike anything that “I’m sorry” can accomplish.  I can feel the restoration begin almost as soon as I utter the words.

So we’re teaching this to our kids.  And we’re practicing it ourselves.  In our home, if we accidentally make a mistake, “I’m sorry” is acceptable.  Nothing more is required.

But if we’ve intentionally offended someone, we will say something along these lines and are coaching our kids to do the same thing:

“I’m sorry that I ________.”

“That was wrong of me because ________.  To make it right, I’m going to ______.”

“Will you please forgive me?”

Kory and I offer these words to each other regularly.  Our kids offer them to us and to one another.  And get this.  When Kory and I offend our kids (gasp), we offer them these words too.

We’ve found that asking for forgiveness opens the door for grace to enter the room.  

It softens the hearts of both the offender and the offended.  It reminds us that none of us is perfect, that we all make mistakes, and that we need to move beyond those mistakes back into a state of right relationship.

When forgiveness is offered by the offended, it also puts the incident in the past.  

In our house, we encourage one another to not resurrect past wrongs as weapons in a new incident.  What’s done is done.  And when forgiveness is given, the incident is over.  We bury it.  And we don’t mention it again.

Obviously, given this morning’s events, we’re still very much in teaching mode on this principle.  And we’re at different stages of the game with each child.  But we talked with our oldest son and explained the difference between “I’m sorry” and “Will you forgive me?” one more time on Saturday morning.

If we’re consistent in our teaching, we’re confident he’ll eventually get it.  And he’ll be blessed with a life skill that will serve him well in his adult relationships down the road.

In the meantime, we held his hand through the process of saying “I’m sorry” to “little bit.”  (Who is fine by the way.)

Is there someone in your life from whom you need to seek forgiveness?  Conversely, is there someone you need to forgive today?

13 thoughts on “Why Won’t My Child Apologize?

  1. Ironic. One of my good friends just posted this link on Facebook tonight: http://www.cuppacocoa.com/a-better-way-to-say-sorry/
    I started reading it and I thought that they had stolen your entry! It sounded so much alike.. but then I compared and they weren’t exactly the same. And I think they wrote that in March, but I can’t tell for sure. It was weird, though!
    Great points to remember.. I hope to start implementing this in my life now so that if I have children someday, it’s ingrained in me already.

    • Thanks so much for sharing this article. I really enjoyed the read. She had some takes on it that I will implement, such as the “in the future” component, where she asks the child to identify how to behave differently down the road. I like not only that she seeks a commitment from the child but also that she asks them to make that commitment in such a way that it lifts up the virtue instead of the vice. (I will be kind, instead of I won’t hit). If you have children someday, they will surely be blessed by your efforts to implement this process of seeking forgiveness! Thanks for reading!

  2. After nearly 3 years of teaching in this area with our 5 year old, she is really starting to grasp it and put it in to practice on her own without prompting! Reaping the fruits of a lot of labor, finally! (And she’s teaching her little brother by example:)

    • I love it when we get to see the fruits of the labor. It is so rewarding and helps us stay the course! Good job mama! Thanks for sharing your successes 🙂

  3. This is such a good point, and important to teach kids.
    I’m finding that our boys are far more dramatic than our girls, and one is uber sensitive.

    • This is a great tool that you can start teaching your kids as soon as they can talk. You just give them the words and ask them to repeat. And I think dramatic boys are far more common than people realize!

      • We’ve been working on “I’m sorry” now that we hurt the feelings of our siblings quite often. We will have to start introducing “Please forgive me”, it’s good.

  4. Hmm, food for thought as I wonder if they are being taught the difference at school. I get the impression they are used synomously. This has prompted me to want to ask as I never thought about the difference.

    • My experience at your school was that the kids requested forgiveness. But I suppose that could vary from teacher to teacher. I do think it’s an important distinction and an important skill for maintaining healthy relationships.

  5. Jennifer, I used this when I taught adult Sunday School this morning (wrath/forgiveness), and we read it at our dinner table earlier in the week. With three teenagers this topic is every bit as important as when they were younger. It definitely spans generations! My teens related to the drama and the “parents not coming to the third kid” as they remember their days well. Thanks!!

    • Lydia: I’m so glad you found this useful! I agree that learning how to apologize and seek forgiveness appropriately are life skills that cross generations. Thanks for sharing that you used it in Sunday School. I love hearing that what I’m posting is meaningful to our readers. Feel free to share the blog link with your class! Blessings to you this Holy Week!

  6. Pingback: Are children ever too young to pray? |

  7. Pingback: How I Taught My Daughter to Stop Losing Her Things, and What I’m Learning From My Mistakes |

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