5-Minute Courage Workout: Saying “I’m Sorry”

Compiled and written by Lisa and Jennifer:

Saying “I’m sorry” takes emotional and moral courage.  Learning about the true purpose and importance of making an apology begins and ends with empathy.

In learning to say “I’m sorry” children first need to learn to identify and express their own feelings.  Then, to develop empathy for another’s feelings.  Next, they will learn to recognize right from wrong.  Following early emotional and moral development comes responsibility-taking for one’s choices and behaviors, self-discipline, and assertive communication.

Hopefully, by supporting our children to develop emotional intelligence, empathy for others, and a sense of personal responsibility (whilst continuing to develop these skills ourselves) we can all help create more peace in ourselves, our community, and our world. 

Here’s a list of 5-Minute Courage Workouts by age range. Remember, all workouts are more effective when followed regularly.

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  • Toddler: play I Spy the Feeling! while people-watching on your adventures around town today, or in the books you read together at bedtime, play-act different feelings with a puppet, or sing a five-minute rendition of “If You’re Happy And You Know It” about feelings and act-out the matching body language. The child who can say, “I’m mad!” is less likely to become so frustrated he/she will strike out.  If he/she does strike out, let them know “That hurt! If we hurt someone, we say ‘I’m sorry’.” If you do something hurtful accidentally, like stepping on a tiny toe or bumping into each other, look your toddler in the eye and say “I’m sorry I stepped on your toe.  Are you okay?” Just like please and thank you, I’m sorry can now begin to be part of your child’s developing vocabulary.
  • Preschooler: play the Let’s Take Turns game.  Sharing is an important first step in building the kind of empathy and self-control associated with social and moral courage.  Use a kitchen timer, if necessary, to help your child and his/her brother, sister, or friend take turns with a toy (you can practice with your child first, too)—don’t start with one of their favorite toys and keep the time limit short (2-5 minutes each to start)!  Allow them the opportunity for success.  Have them each pick two toys they’d like to practice sharing. At the start of the game, say “We’re going to play a sharing game today so you both get a chance to play with these toys.  We are going to use a timer and when your turn is done, you give the toy to Sam and you give your toy to Ella.”  At the end of the time, say “It’s time to share your toy.  After their turn, you will get another chance to play with it.” Use praise. “I noticed that as soon as the timer rang, you both shared your toys.  What caring friends you are to share! Now everyone has a chance to play with the toy today.”  If one or the other child grabs the toy before the end of the time, make sure he/she knows to say “I’m sorry I took the toy” and returns it.  Start the timer again. 
  • Early elementary student: your child’s cognitive development has now progressed to the stage he/she is able to empathize.  The world of right and wrong is now viewed through black and white lenses.  Deepening your child’s understanding that not everyone experiences everything he/she does in the same way will be important now.  For example, you may hear your child say “Well, I didn’t mean to break your cup, slam the door, etc. It was an accident!”  It will be important to teach your child that even if something is an accident, their behavior has an effect.  Letting our child off the hook at this stage (when they have done something wrong), and continuing to let them off the hook as they mature, may be the very reason some adults on Wall Street have yet to take responsibility for their actions and the consequences.  Children at this age are now becoming aware that they may have made a mistake or done something hurtful, but being worried about what others think of them may cause them to be shy about saying “I’m sorry” and/or taking responsibility for their action.  Start with a 5-minute review of classroom and family rules.  Discuss together over dinner tonight these two questions: “Why are rules important?”  “Why is saying ‘I’m sorry’ important?”
  • Upper elementary student or ‘tween: you may be hearing a lot of “I’m sorry…OKAY?!” at this stage.  Many kids are usually more than familiar with the throw-away version of the apology, couched in sarcasm and not an ounce of regret.  Here’s where parents can get creative and encourage children to brainstorm ways to “make amends” for their misdeed to get the full-impact of what an apology is really about.  One evening this week, consider spending five minutes writing together, on small slips of paper, something you would like to apologize for (be specific) but haven’t had the courage yet to do so.  The goal is to get any free-floating guilt on paper, whether or not you follow through immediately with the apology or not.  Then, share with one another your misdeed and intended apology. Discuss some of the barriers standing in your way: embarrassment, too much time has passed, fear of being judged/excluded, not really liking the person you hurt, etc. Decide together if the true forgiveness needed is actually self-forgiveness?  Or does a phone call need to be made, a note written to the special someone you wish to apologize, or simply a behavior changed? 
  • High schooler or teen: by the time our kids are teenagers, there are usually plenty of opportunities to apologize to our kids—heck we’re all hormonal by this stage!  On your drive to work, walking the dog, or just before bed spend five minutes reflecting on something you may have done that you would like to apologize for.  Now apologize.  For example, “Kyle, I’m sorry I said how stinky your socks were in front of your friends.  I am aware that I thought I was being funny, but noticed you may actually have been embarrassed.  I’m sorry for saying something potentially embarrassing about you.  I will be more mindful in the future to wait until we are alone together to suggest you use the foot odor spray we bought for your shoes. I hope you can accept my apology.” Then, make sure you follow through with said behavior change so your teen will, too!

Guilt is a powerful psychological mechanism that warns us when something is wrong, amiss, out of balance, or that a mistake’s been made.  Guilt’s purpose is to help us correct our course and move forward unburdened.  Sometimes saying “I’m sorry” is the first step to unburdening.  Oftentimes, however, when we are forced to say “I’m sorry” prematurely or without a complete understanding of what these two short, but powerful, words actually mean, we can transform guilt into shame.  Shame has a nasty way of keeping us stuck in the same behaviors that got us into trouble in the first place, and we end up feeling unworthy, suffer from low self-esteem, and can become socially isolated. As a parent, you are a powerful role model for your child to learn loving communication, assertiveness, and how to use his/her voice to express concern, care, and culpability (when necessary). 

Working on these skills may call upon different types of courage, depending upon your child’s particular strengths and/or temperament.  For example, asking some children to apologize may take emotional courage, for others social courage to do the same task. Review the Six Types of Courage to figure out which types your child needs to complete this workout.

One thought on “5-Minute Courage Workout: Saying “I’m Sorry”

  1. Barbaloot

    My son's day care was big on teaching the kids to apologize if they hurt each other.They had them say 'I'm sorry' and also give a hug.Quite often, my son (age two and a half) will refuse to say the words but will give a hug instead.It works!He had his first encounter with sand recently, and threw some at an older boy (5 or 6).When I corrected him and asked him to say sorry, he hugged the other boy, who was really charmed by it once I explained that was his way of saying sorry.My son will chat away with me, but doesn't always feel comfortable talking around new people.And just like I give him a kiss where he has an ouchie, if he hurts me and I tell him, he'll give me a kiss on the ouchie spot.These non-verbals 'sorrys' can communicate very clearly.

  2. Lisa Dungate

    Thanks Barbaloot for your comment about the importance of non-verbal apologies!I am also not a fan of "forcing" children to saying "I'm sorry," especially prematurely.But modeling these kind words, that are not meant to be a bandaid to heal all wounds or to be a casual throw-away, is important in laying the moral foundation for every child. Often I allow a child a choice of how and when they would like to apologize; but first we seek to understand what happened, why an apology might be needed, and seek to build empathy in interpersonal relationships.


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