Updated: Jul 31, 2019
Forcing our children to say the words. "I'm sorry" doesn't actually make them feel sorry. Instead, it turns an opportunity to learn about others' feelings into an experience of just doing what they're told.
Wanting our children to be other-centered, kind, and empathetic to others is a wonderful thing. But we can't force someone to feel something. And the more we force it, the more the words, more importantly the intention behind them lose meaning.
Forcing our children to say the words, "I'm sorry" doesn't actually make them feel sorry.
So what to do instead?
There are many other things we can do to build empathy instead.
1. We can help them recognize emotions in others. "Oh look, when you took her toy, she started crying. Do you see her tears? She looks and sounds sad."
2. Help the child to recognize their own emotions. How can we identify in others what we cannot see in ourselves, right? A big part of helping them know their own emotions is to let them express themselves and validate their experience.
3. Model what an apology looks like and what it entails. Get on their level, look them in the eye, "Oh! That looks like it hurts! I didn't see you behind me. Can I get you some ice? I am so sorry." The more they see meaningful apologies and are on the receiving end to know how it feels, their apologies will *eventually* simply flow from a true desire and a knowledge of how it goes.
4. A final suggestion for sibling/friend conflicts where it seems "closure" would be useful: Help the child who enacted a behavior toward another child ask that child, "What can I do to make it better?" And let the child answer. It may be a hug, it may be "Can I have my toy back?" Whatever it is, it encourages a thought for the other as well as an action to aid another.