My two-year-old son is generally exceptionally well-behaved and polite.

He was saying "please" and "thank you" at a very early age, and would apologize if he had problems sharing or accidentally hurt someone.

However, now at 26 months, he has started to really push our boundaries.

Most recently, he refuses to say "sorry" when he hurts someone.

On one occasion, he was playing too rough with me, and pinched my neck pretty hard. I said "ow, that hurt. You've got to be careful. Can you say you're sorry?".

On another, he was bouncing on the bed when he landed hard on my wife, and hurt her. She also asked for an apology.

Both times he said "no!", laughed, cried, covered his eyes, ran away, and generally avoided apologizing. We kept insisting that he apologize, and I tried explaining to him that sometimes you can hurt someone by accident, but that apologizing showed that you didn't mean to hurt them.

He asked "why?". I tried simplifying it, saying that "good boys say sorry so they don't hurt other people's feelings". He then said he wanted to be a bad boy. I said "people don't like to be around bad boys". He said "why?". I said "because they hurt people and don't say sorry. People don't like to get hurt." However, he responded by saying that he liked to get hurt.

At this point, I can't tell how much of this is him just testing boundaries, and how much is him simply not understanding the concepts.

In the past, taking away the toys he was playing with was usually enough to get him to apologize, but that no longer works. Last night he was put to bed about 30 minutes early, with no bedtime stories, because "bad boys don't get stories read". However, we still got no apology.

What is the best strategy for getting him to apologize for when he does something that hurts someone?

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    I would be careful with labeling him good/bad. This can backfire in so many ways. I'm not sure if you've seen Brene Brown's work on shame and vulnerability? She's done a couple Ted Talks and just released a book. There's a big difference between "I made a mistake" and "I am a mistake" or similarly, "I did something bad" and "I am something bad." I understand this is not your intent, but I would still be careful. Kids are unfortunately great at internalizing things! Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 14:46
  • Not being cognitively ready to understand the concept doesn't mean he doesn't understand that he is supposed to say it, or that deliberately refusing to isn't defiance. I believe that establishing the habit of politeness is important even before the concepts are understood, and this has worked up until this past week for "please", "thank you", and "I'm sorry". I'm sure he doesn't understand "thank you" fully, either, but he still knows that he's supposed to say it.
    – user420
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 15:07
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    Yes, that is true. But I find that kids that say sorry out of habit often keep doing whatever it was they did wrong in the first place because they don't stop to consider the real effects of their actions. This is where @balanced mama's answer comes in handy. I think you can keep doing what you are doing for the most part, but be realistic. I would just leave it with "when you hurt someone they won't want to play with you again. Saying sorry tells them you won't hurt them again". At 26 months he is quite young. Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 15:10
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    I agree with @ChristineGordon and balancedmama on this one. Before he was saying "I'm sorry" because it was a habit and he wanted to please you. Not because he was truly sorry. Now he realizes that he has control over certain things and you can't MAKE him necessarily do things he doesn't want to do. Which is true--you CAN'T make him apologize for things. But you can control what you choose to do. I think you need to decide if it's more important to you that your child learn to apologize out of politeness or because he REALLY means it.
    – Meg Coates
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 17:55
  • You might appreciate this entry from the Parenting From Scratch blog on another perspective on defiance. Behavior is the symptom, not the problem. As always, take it or leave it. parentingfromscratch.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/… (I don't know how to make a link in a comment) Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 18:07

2 Answers 2


At two he probably doesn't fully get the concepts regarding apologizing. At this point it is only a habit he does because you taught him to. At his age, he is testing the limits of his control. He is finding out what you can enforce and what you can't.

He probably feels bad that he hurt you, but doesn't want to be forced to express the bad feelings. Sorry, when you really mean it, can actually be really hard for a lot of people to say (one of the reasons I am not a proponent of forced apologies or eye-contact).

I think you are essentially headed in the right direction on a parallel track to the one you are intending in your discussions with him about "good boys" and "bad boys." Instead, I wonder if you might use more of an approach where you speak about your feelings - especially in regard to trust. "When I get pinched, and it hurts it is hard to trust that person won't hurt me that way again. If the person who did the pinching says, 'sorry' it is like saying, 'I'm sorry I did that, I won't do it again.' If you say 'sorry' and don't do it again, it is easier for me to trust you and want to hang out."

Trust is a tough concept for kids too, but if, after a discussion like that, he still doesn't want to apologize, he'll have to suffer the consequences of lost trust. Maybe it will mean you don't want to wrestle or rough house anymore - until he shows that he can learn where the boundaries between fun rough-housing and hurtful rough-housing are. He'll have to answer the question, "how do I get dad's trust back?" He can answer it through an apology or maybe he'll come up with another good alternative, but this is a more true-to-life consequence that will teach him a lot about interpersonal intelligence in the end. It is probably one he will learn in multiple ways at multiple times throughout his growing.

  • I'm perfectly fine with him not fully understanding the concepts of apologizing, and it being just a habit (just like "please" and "thank you" are). It's the testing of the limits that concerns me. I like the idea of using trust as the explanation. I tried something similar with "hurt", saying I was hurt, and he made me sad, so I didn't want to play with him, but trust sounds potentially more productive. Thanks!
    – user420
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 15:03
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    The testing of limits IS frustrating - it is also where the name, "terrible two's" comes from so while you'll still have to stay on your toes, I wouldn't be terribly concerned about it. Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 15:05
  • @balancedmama: indeed, I'd say it's perfectly normal for a 2yo to be testing the limits: that's what they should be doing.
    – haylem
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 22:03

I don't think forcing him to say sorry is the best strategy. This teaches him that saying sorry regardless of whether or not he means it is acceptable and 'fixes' the problem.

So, at 26 months, he has just turned 2. I would:

  • role model by making sure you say sorry when appropriate
  • encourage him "uh oh, you hurt __, can you say sorry?" is probably fine
  • most importantly, "uh oh, you hurt __. We are helpful, not hurtful. What can you do now to help him?"

    This will encourage the child to focus on the problem at hand. You can help him brainstorm things like, get a bandaid, get an icepack, rub the hurt child's back, etc. Or, thigns like getting another toy or building a new sandcastle for the child if he has just broken theirs etc. Spending time actually helping the other person helps him to see them as another person with feelings just like him. Saying "sorry" doesn't actually mean anything at this age.

At this age he is old enough to start using bugs & wishes, too, which I have mentioned elsewhere in this forum. "It bugs me when you and I wish you would instead." YOU can say this to him, too. It works both ways. The responses available are "I'm sorry", "I didn't know", "I didn't mean to", "I'll do __ instead." Though at this age it's best to keep it short.

As he gets older, the brainstorming will include things like working to pay for something stolen, lost, etc, writing a letter/cards of apology, etc. Basically, working to solve the problem, not just saying sorry and running off. In my classrooms, sorry is for accidents (like, when you bump into someone by mistake, etc) and these are rare.

But, also understand that it's not going to be perfect overnight and will take a while. Children don't typically develop theory of mind (the ability to see others as people with their own thoughts, feelings, and perspectives until age 4. When the child starts to lie successfully, you'll know they have reached this milestone (you don't lie until you realize that people can hold different knowledge of events than you).

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    I know this is an old question, but I LOVE this answer and I feel the techniques provided will help children understand true reasons why we say "sorry" instead of just because mom said we HAVE to. I'm just delving into teaching manners to my daughter and I will use your suggestions. Thank you! Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 16:33

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