Story highlights

Children as young as 4 can grasp the emotional implications of an apology

Views on whether parents should ask their children to apologize vary

Have you ever felt deserving of an apology and been upset when you didn’t get one? Have you ever found it hard to deliver the words, I’m sorry?

Such experiences show how much apologies matter. The importance placed on apologies is shared by many cultures. Diverse cultures even share a great deal in common when it comes to how apologies are communicated.

When adults feel wronged, apologies have been shown to help in a variety of ways: Apologies can reduce retaliation; they can bring about forgiveness (PDF) and empathy for wrongdoers; and they can aid in the repair of broken trust. Further, sincere apologies have the physiological effect of lowering blood pressure more quickly, especially among those who are prone to hold on to anger.

How do children view and experience apologies? And what do parents think about when to prompt their young ones to apologize?

How children understand apologies

Research shows that children as young as age four grasp the emotional implications (PDF) of apology. They understand, for example, that an apology can improve the feelings of someone who’s been upset. Preschoolers also judge apologizing wrongdoers to be more likable, and more desirable as partners for interaction and cooperation (PDF).

Recent studies have tested the actual impact of apologies on children. In one such study, a group of four- to seven-year-olds received an apology from a child who failed to share, while another group did not get an apology. The participants who received the apology felt better (PDF) and viewed the offending child as nicer as well as more remorseful.

Another study exposed children to a more distressing event: A person knocked over a tower that six- to seven-year-olds were building. Some children got an apology, some did not. In this case, a spontaneous apology did not improve children’s upset feelings. However, the apology still had an impact. Children who got an apology were willing to share more of their attractive stickers with the person who knocked over the tower compared to those who did not get an apology.

This finding suggests that an apology led to forgiveness in children, even if sadness about the incident understandably lingered. Notably, children did feel better when the other person offered to help rebuild their toppled towers. In other words, for children, both remorseful words and restorative actions make a difference.

When does a child’s apology matter to parents?

Although apologies carry meaning for children, views on whether parents should ask their children to apologize vary. A recent caution against apology prompting was based on the mistaken notion that young children have limited social understanding. In fact, young children understand a great deal about others’ viewpoints.

When and why parents prompt their children to apologize has not been systematically studied. In order to gain better insight into this question, I recently conducted a study with my colleagues Jee Young Noh and Michael Rizzo at the University of Maryland and Paul Harris at Harvard University.