What's the best way to teach a child to say "sorry" and mean it without just creating a mimic? I don't truly believe that simply forcing a child to say they are sorry for hitting another kid or taking a toy is going to teach them how to have true remorse for their actions and make corrections to their behavior. For context, my daughter is 19mo. Is it possible at her age? When is a good age to expect they are cognitively able to understand this concept?
Demanding a specific action from a toddler always bears the risk of escalation if both toddler and parent are strong-willed. Ask yourself wether you are willing to enter into a battle of wills and humiliation over a matter of manners/morals. I've been there and don't want to go there again.
From my experience, it's easier and more effective to concentrate on being a role model. Demonstrate (without explaining) to the child that saying and feeling sorry has good effects and is an honorable thing to do. And do the obvious: repair the damage, comfort the injured before even turning to the injurer.
It's hard to witness a child refusing to say sorry, but it makes me cringe to hear them say a forced sorry. And often, if you let them be, they will come back later and apologize in an honest and touching way. Conscience grows in children and doesn't have to be built.
A 20 month old who said "I'm sorry" because he was told to wouldn't mean he had internalized sorry at having done wrong. It just means he is willing to do whatever he needs to get you to stop being upset at him. But most of our manners are made up of custom and repetition. When someone tells you "I'm sorry" does it necessarily mean that they are actually sorry to the point something has fundamentally changed inside them and that the thing they did (and had to apologize for) is something they wouldn't do again? Probably not.
Haven't you ever said sorry for something you didn't think you needed to apologize for? Courtesy and respect needs to exist apart from how we feel about the actions and objects that they act upon. If someone is upset by something we said or did, saying sorry isn't necessarily an admission that they had the "right" to be upset. Sometimes it is just a way to live in harmony when you disagree.
As children, we learn to say please even when we think the object of our desire is ours by right. We say thank you even though we don't actually feel gratitude. We say sorry when we don't feel any real sorrow at our actions. Later on, as we mature, hopefully we internalize the concepts behind the courtesies. But if we are never taught the habit, the internalization is less likely to occur. If we only behave with respect or courtesy toward people who we felt "deserved it", society would disintegrate, or at least become a much more contentious place.
Think about millions of people, many of them living so close to strangers whose lifestyles and appearances are offensive to them that if the walls of their apartments were to disappear they could spit in their neighbor's morning cup of coffee. We don't have to agree that our neighbors deserve our courtesy, but we all need to buy into the social contract that says we all must learn to have manners just because manners are good for all of us.
I've witnessed my own children not truly display an understanding of apologies, picking up after themselves and other topics that I want them to be more empathetic about. This has been frustrating for me, but I have found it is normal. Here are some resources you can use as references.
From Janet Lansbury:
Over the years I have heard many of these forced apologies. I understand the parent’s need for them, but I have to admit they always make me squirm. 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.
From Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M. about toddler apologies:
Q: We make our two year old say, "I'm sorry," when she hits someone, like her mother, brother or sister. She refuses at first, so we make her stand in a corner until she's ready to say it.
Does a child this age know what it means to be sorry? Is she just saying the "magic" words? Should we continue to make her say she is sorry?
A: Your two year old does not yet have a hard-wired, internalized conscience. Nor is she intellectually at an age of reason (which usually begins at around two-and-a-half). Therefore, making her say "I'm sorry," and putting her in a corner until she does will have no long-term effect.
Follow the link above to continue reading
Finally an except from parents.com
Before a child can apologize, she has to realize she's done something wrong—a concept preschoolers and even 5-year-olds don't always grasp. "Preschoolers are still in the 'me' phase, so they're not considering what's right or wrong," says Sherry Siman Maliken, a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program, in Kensington, Maryland. That's why parents and teachers often need to step in and point out when an apology is in order. With kids 2 and under, just focus on enforcing the rules—by learning them, your child will have less to apologize for later—and don't worry about coaxing a "Sorry."
Children typically begin to develop self awareness between 15 and 24 months old which is the skill necessary to begin to develop empathy , so your daughter is at a good age to be learning this. This is also the age where they well through imitating others, especially adults, so one of the best ways to teach them is through modeling the desired behavior.
It's my experience that it is important that you model your interactions with your child as well as other adults. This can make it easier for them to understand as they have better access to their own feeling that those of others and learning the first is an important part of learning the second. My daughter gets very upset if you raise your voice to her so we have learned to say sorry to her when this happens, as a way of modeling the behavior, and use it as a way of talking about what people might be feeling. This helps give context to why we are sorry and helps her come up with ways to avoid this in future.
For example: "I'm sorry I shouted at you. I can see it makes you upset. Daddy was worried that you might get hurt if you kept doing that and I get frustrated when you don't listen when I am trying to keep you safe. What could we do differently next time?"