Humble Horizons Montessori

Empathy and the young child: Should I force them to say “I’m sorry”?

An interesting aspect of Montessori grace and courtesy is the notion of “apologizing”.  Should we insist that  very young children apologize when they do something undesirable, and it impacts others in a negative and perhaps hurtful or offensive way?

My answer as a Montessori guide is no, we should not.  And this may come as a surprise.  But here’s why.

Young children are still in a brain development space that does not match the more mature brain of an older child, let alone the fully mature brain of an adult.  Feelings of genuine remorse (empathy) may not always be felt by the younger child, whose brain is operating in a more egocentric, in-the-moment fashion.

Dr. Maria Montessori had a special word to describe the brain of the young child and how they appear to be called or motivated by an inner pull or inner drive that seems to say “I just need to do this right now” even if there may be no  logical or obvious rhyme or reason why they feel compelled. Dr. Montessori  called this invisible force the ‘horme’, or the young child’s ‘inner teacher’.  No one has to explicitly teach a baby how to walk, or how to roll from its back to its stomach, and no one can explain where this ‘urge to do things’ comes from.  It just needs to happen,  and it does.  It’s how they are attracted to a shelf of work.  Sometimes young children just feel compelled to do things that seem random to adults.

Likewise, when a young child makes choices  that may result in having a poor social impact, it is often  the result of less-developed brain structures and a lack of life experience.  They are usually not considering what others think or feel at all, let alone in response to what they feel compelled to suddenly do.  Empathy can aboslutely be demonstrated by very young children,  but it comes more naturally to some than others. So no, not all young children are actually “sorry” when they “should” be.  They are feeling driven.  They are feeling compelled.  This is not to say that we are going to ignore poor behavioral choices or negative social impacts.

The best thing we can do when young children execute a behavior that has a poor social impact  is to: a) point out the cause-and-effect, b) label the emotions, and c) tell the truths of that situation.  Allow it to be a teachable moment rather than a ‘punishable’ moment.  People, even fully grown adults, can say the words  “I’m sorry” and not really mean it.

Let’s say Jane hurt Bobby somehow . You can point out to Jane the truth: Jane, when you did that (notice how we, again are minimizing  the power given to the negative behavior by simply referring to it as “that”), it made Bobby cry”.  Then you can point out how those negative outcomes make other people feel.  “Look, Bobby is hurting now because of your choice; and that is not okay with me. I don’t like to see other people hurting“.  The adult is modeling empathy.  When Jane sees Bobby crying,  and then receiving comfort, care, and attention, when Jane’s brain is developed enough, Jane will naturally start to feel shame and remorse.  There is another developmental ability, called “theory of mind”, or the ability to jump into the mind of how someone else might experience something, that does not kick in until a person is developmentally mature enough.

As soon as Jane genuinely starts to show she’s feeling badly, you can point out how Jane looks like she is feeling sorry.  Later, Jane will begin to be able to identify this feeling in herself;  just like children learn to label all the rest of their emotions and states that arise internally, like ‘I’m sad’ and ‘I’m hungry’.  If Jane was just too young and runs away without a care in the world after hurting Bobby, clearly Jane is definitely not yet ready to know about the social grace of “I’m sorry”.  You can peacefully tell the children the truth that they don’t always get to do everything they wish if it is dangerous, disruptive, destructive, disrespectful, or deliberately misleading.  And finally, always offer grace to the wrongdoer.  “It’s okay, thank you for apologizing. I’m sure you will make safer choices in the future”.


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