Please, thank you, & I’m sorry: teaching morals to young children


(Photo via artethgray, Flickr Creative Commons)

Recently a friend of mine posted a faith-based article entitled “Should I make my child apologize” on social media, and I had the privilege to respectfully and honestly dialogue with her on-line.

Since the issue of manners and morality is one that concerns all parents, secular or religious, I thought I’d invite you all to join in the virtual conversation with my friend and me through today’s blog post.

My hope is that this post is filled with respect and humility since I know the topic of disciplining children is a sensitive one.

I want to reiterate that the purpose of this post (and, the blog as a whole) is to process my own parenting journey and to explain to others the “why” behind the decisions D. and I have made for our family.

I also hope that everything I write here serves to prompt an honest and authentic dialogue with any reader who might feel led to comment.

So, let’s jump right to it! Should we make our children apologize (or, say please and thank you, or share, etc.)?

According to the article’s author, Jen Wilkin, “…we teach our children the language they need to interact with others well before they have any real concept of why such language is necessary and good. Because of this, I would answer the question ‘Should I require my child to apologize?’ with an emphatic ‘Yes.’”


(Photo via Leyram Odecram, Flickr Creative Commons)

First, to the author’s point of “teaching” our children and how young children learn, and how that connects to the word “teaching” (from the Latin “disciple”/”discipline”).

As a former high school teacher, I know that rote repetition and memorization are not the only (and, often not the best) way to learn. Before I would teach my students a topic, I would study them first to determine their unique needs, personalities, and ways of learning. (For my Christian readers: Jesus essentially did the same with his “disciples:” they literally lived and breathed with him for three years to learn his teachings; it was through his life and example that they learned. It was a process that took time.)

If, based on my observations, I concluded that my students learned best using their hands (tactile) or body (kinesthetic), then I would “teach” them through a manipulative or full-body activity. In the same way, as a mother I must first observe and study my “students,” or my children, to understand how they best learn.

We know that young children, say ages 0-7, which is what the author of this article is saying, learn through experience and their five senses. So, as a mother of young children, I ask myself, “what is the best way to “teach” my children how to ____ (fill in the blank with any and everything from head knowledge (colors, numbers, etc.) to practical life skills (getting dressed) to moral behavior (apologizing, gratitude, sharing, etc.)?”

And, the answer is: I do it; I speak it; I model it; I live it.

“These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7. New International Version)

When D. makes dinner, I thank him. When I pass a neighbor on the street, I greet her. When my friend drops her purse, I bend down to pick it up. When I encounter a homeless man on the street, I stop and buy him a meal. When the grocer asks if I need help to my car, I respond yes, please. I bless each meal with E. I pray for her each night at bed.

This method is not only modeling. It’s “teaching.”

And, it’s teaching the way my students (i.e., my children) best learn.

Do I want E. and J. to eventually share their possessions, and apologize when they’ve hurt someone, and say please and thank you? Of course I do!

Key word: “Eventually.” In their own time.

That requires trust. And a lot of it. Trusting that my children see and hear EVERYTHING I do and say. Trusting that my modeling will rub off on them. (As a Christian) Trusting that God is the only one with the power to change their hearts for good.

Being a daily – and authentic – example of remorse, repentance, honesty, humility, or gratitude is a much more challenging task for parents than requiring our children to repeat the words I’m sorry “…before they have any real concept of why such language is necessary and good.”


(Photo via MAJ Aaron Haney, Flickr Creative Commons)

Second, to the author’s point of “requiring” our children to apologize (to this I would add requiring them to share or say please/thank you).

I would argue that the author is submitting her children to a standard that not even God requires of His children (me!). Although God has the ability and power to force me to do anything He wants, in his gracious love and mercy He doesn’t because He loves me and wants me to choose Him and to choose to obey Him of my own free will. We are not automatons; we are humans. So, why would I submit my own young children to a different standard?

Theology aside, let me speak practically now.

I’ve noticed that when I’m tempted to force E. to apologize, say for hitting another child at the park, it’s based on fear, fear that the other parents on the playground will think I’m permissive, or fear that my child will never learn to not hit. Or, it’s based on a need to control my child’s behavior. But, we can’t and don’t control our children.

RIE blogger and author Janet Lansbury puts it so well: “To truly apologize requires empathy, and empathy develops in its own way and time, at a different pace for each child. So, often the child is not developmentally ready to understand, much less own the words she’s saying….What worries me most is the child who, because his caregiver has pushed him to always say ‘sorry,’ receives the message that apologizing fixes everything. He punches another child, but as long as he says, “I’m sorry,“ he’s excused and can move on, or even do it again. We are wrong to believe we teach empathy by forcing an insincere apology.” (Article source)

Although there are paragraphs more I could write on this topic, I’ll end here for now by saying that I’m reminded that when it comes to teaching manners and morality to my children, I need to get the proverbial log out of my own eye before I worry about the speck in my two-year old’s eye (to paraphrase Jesus).

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” ~James Baldwin

Agree or disagree with what you’ve read today? I’d love to hear from you!

Interested in reading more on the topic of children and morality, both from a secular and faith-based perspective? Please check out these wonderful articles!

“Say your Sorry!” (I LOVE this article!)

Making Caring Common Project (Harvard University)

NPR Interview with Psychologist Richard Weissbourd, author of The Well-Meaning, Bad Parent

Helping your child say “I’m sorry” (podcast)

Model Graciousness

24 books that show empathy, kindness

Preschoolers and hitting

Parenting is first about my sin (faith-based article)





3 thoughts on “Please, thank you, & I’m sorry: teaching morals to young children

  1. I wouldn’t want my [hypothetical] children to apologize if they weren’t actually sorry. Saying you’re sorry without knowing what you’ve done wrong really isn’t an apology even if a person wants it to be. My husband may actually be sorry that I am upset, but until he understands what makes me react like that, he is, unfortunately, destined to repeat his actions which, with time, may make me think that his “apology” is insincere. In the example you gave, it’s pretty straightforward what the child should be sorry for (hitting), but as we grow up and the problems tend to be more emotional and less physical, I think it’s important for the apologizer to be specific as to what they are apologizing for…

    “I’m sorry I snapped at you for not having ironed my shirts when I know I’m not around to help out with the chores. I’m sorry if that made you feel like unpaid hired help.” And if it’s possible, the apologizer can offer a solution/peace treaty. “I’m going to start sweeping every time I’m home because I know how much you hate sweeping, especially with how many other things I depend on you to do.”

    … and to ask for clarification as to what exactly they did wrong if they aren’t sure.

    “I understand that you are upset and that it was because of something I said, but I don’t think I said anything that would have upset you; so can you please help me to understand what is wrong? It’s not my intention to make you feel bad.”

    Which reminds me. Sometimes an apology isn’t necessary….True story about language barriers. I once said something in Spanish to Hubs–back before he was “Hubs”–that I thought was sweet and it ticked him off for some reason. Wouldn’t talk to me until the next morning. At that point I cornered him and said, “Hey, I don’t know why you’re upset when I thought I was saying something sweet, but if you want this to work out, you have two options: First, you can remember that I love you and am not here to hurt you; so if I say something hurtful, take a moment to try to figure out what else I could have meant. Or second, you can learn English and we can start this relationship all over with me being the one who always knows what they’re talking about.” To this day, I still don’t know why he got upset. (I had said something about him wanting to visit me, and he got upset and said he didn’t visit me because he wanted to visit me…which made me upset because if you don’t want to visit someone but are there anyway, it can only be out of obligation. He said that wasn’t it either. So, yeah, no clue.) I’m not apologizing for trying to be sweet, and he’s not apologizing because he was right (or so I figure since he actually knows what he’s talking about in Spanish), but that’s a conclusion to that argument that we’re okay with; we learned how to communicate better as a result.

    I disagree with “please,” though. If you want something, you should ask politely. That doesn’t guarantee you will get it; it really isn’t “the magic word.” It’s just polite.

    “Thank you” on the other hand is more than polite. I equate “thank you” with giving thanks…and sorry, grandma, I’m not thankful for the socks you sent. Also, “thank you” letters are horrible. Everyone over the age of 50 in the US will disagree with me, but it’s something of the Guatemalan culture that I love SOOOO much. As my husband explains it, “If you have to give something [a thank you letter] for a gift, then it’s not really a gift.” Guatemalans don’t even put their names on their gifts. It’s something I would offer to my hypothetical children, I think: “Do you want to write Grandma a letter telling her how much you like the doll she sent?” (if it’s obvious that my child actually likes the doll). If he or she doesn’t, then I’d probably just snap a picture of the child enjoying playing with the doll and send it off to my mother.


    • Hi! Thanks so much for stopping by the blog and commenting. I love that you shared a cross-cultural example. Really? The Guatemalans don’t put their names on their gifts? How interesting. And, yes, language can definitely create miscommunications and misunderstandings of intentions. That’s why never taking anything for granted nor making assumptions is so important when communicating with a person of a different culture or language. Audrey


  2. Pingback: What we’re reading, November | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

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