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Should You Make Your Kids Apologize?

How to teach children to recognize and take responsibility for their mistakes.

Key points

  • Apologizing is an important part of repairing and maintaining relationships.
  • Research finds few differences between prompted and spontaneous apologies, and that making amends may be more effective than any type of apology.
  • Parents can help their children learn these skills by modeling them, prompting their kids in the moment, and having open conversations.

Have you ever asked your child to apologize for their behavior? Have you wondered if this kind of prompted or “forced” apology actually makes a difference? And, if we shouldn’t be asking our children to apologize, how exactly do we teach them to recognize and learn from their mistakes?

First, research indicates that apologies are important in helping children to repair the relationship with the person impacted by their behavior. Research finds that children report that receiving apologies helps to repair their trust and increases positive emotions. Recent research also finds that children are more forgiving of other children who apologize and are more likely to rate the transgressor as nicer than children who did not receive an apology,

But does it matter whether the apology is spontaneous or prompted by the parent? Interestingly, research finds little difference between prompted or “forced” apologies (that is, when a parent asks a child to apologize) and spontaneous apologies (that is, when a child apologizes on their own). Research suggests that both types of apologies seem to repair the relationship but neither make the victim feel better. While research finds that children may begin to value spontaneous or easily prompted apologies over “forced” apologies as they get older (around 7 to 9 years), this study found no difference between children’s responses to spontaneous apologies versus apologies that were prompted but easily given, even among older children. Research also suggests that asking your child to apologize is not linked with increased aggression or anxiety in children.

So, in summary, while you should not “force” your child to apologize or threaten to punish them if they do not apologize since this kind of controlling behavior in parenting has well-documented negative impacts on children, there is nothing wrong with gently reminding your child to apologize.

However, research also suggests that there may be a better option than simply asking your child to apologize. Research finds that “making amends,” that is trying to make up for or right the wrong in some way, may be more effective than spontaneous, prompted, or “forced” apologies. Specifically, “making amends” has been found to repair the relationship AND make the victim feel better. Examples of “making amends” include offering an ice pack when your child hits another child or helping to rebuild something that they knocked over.

So what does this all mean? How can you apply this research? Here are some evidence-based tips for helping your child recognize and take responsibility for their mistakes:

  1. Wait until everyone involved has calmed down (including yourself!). Then, give your child a chance to apologize or make amends spontaneously.
  2. If they do not apologize or make amends spontaneously, first ask what they can do to help the other person feel better (since making amends may be more effective than apologizing).
  3. If needed, provide them with ideas for how to make amends (getting an ice pack or a bandaid for the other child, helping clean up a mess, helping the child to fix something, hugging the other child, asking the other child to play). You can also remind them to apologize at this time.
  4. After the situation is over, explain to them the importance of apologizing and how to apologize sincerely and effectively (making sure to acknowledge their part in it and not saying “I’m sorry, but…”). Also, discuss the importance of making amends and how to make amends in various situations.
  5. Model apologizing by apologizing to your children and others around you whenever you make a mistake. Model making amends by finding ways to “make it up” to your child and others when you make a mistake.

In summary, apologizing is an important skill for your child to learn in order to effectively repair relationships after any type of conflict or mistake. You should give your child a chance to make a spontaneous apology but, if it is not happening, you can ask them to apologize. Research finds that a prompted apology may be more helpful in repairing the relationship than no apology (especially for young kids). However, rather than focusing only on apologizing, parents should also be encouraging their children to make amends. Parents can help their children to learn these skills by prompting them in the moment, having open conversations, and modeling these skills regularly.


Ma, F., Wylie, B. E., Luo, X., He, Z., Xu, F., & Evans, A. D. (2018). Apologies repair children’s trust: The mediating role of emotions. Journal of experimental child psychology, 176, 1-12.

Mulvey, K. L., Gönültaş, S., Herry, E., & Strelan, P. (2021). The role of theory of mind, group membership, and apology in intergroup forgiveness among children and adolescents. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Smith, C. E., & Harris, P. L. (2012). He didn't want me to feel sad: Children's reactions to disappointment and apology. Social Development, 21(2), 215-228.

Drell, M. B., & Jaswal, V. K. (2016). Making amends: Children's expectations about and responses to apologies. Social Development, 25(4), 742-758.

Smith, C. E., Anderson, D., & Straussberger, A. (2018). Say you're sorry: Children distinguish between willingly given and coerced expressions of remorse. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 64(2), 275-308.

Gershoff, E. T., Grogan‐Kaylor, A., Lansford, J. E., Chang, L., Zelli, A., Deater‐Deckard, K., & Dodge, K. A. (2010). Parent discipline practices in an international sample: Associations with child behaviors and moderation by perceived normativeness. Child development, 81(2), 487-502.

Barber, B. K., & Harmon, E. L. (2002). Violating the self: Parental psychological control of children and adolescents.

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