“Say you’re sorry, honey!”
We can all hear the sing-songy sound of this phrase because we’ve all said it a million times, myself included.
I’ve said it in a lot of public places so I don’t look like I’m letting my toddler’s asshole behavior go unnoticed or unchecked. I’ve also said it so people think I’m being a conscientious mother and that, yes, I did notice that my 3-year-old bopped yours with Lego Batman. I’ve said it after louder-than-regular farts have exited my child’s orifice, and they are laughing hysterically on the ground. But while I’ve said it, fervently hoping that my toddler would miraculously comply with my request to apologize, I always knew full well that they weren’t sorry for whatever they just did.
Not one tiny bit.
Toddlers are in constant Fight Club mode, and really, they do have a lot to apologize for. They will take other toddlers down with the nearest blunt object simply for being near them. They will take their clothes off in the middle of story time to feel the wind on their bare butts without a care in the world. They will rip toys right out of someone’s hand, and then they will smile when the other kid cries. They will put their shoes in the toilet and flush. They will run and hide from you in Target like it’s hilarious because they just don’t care.
You will sometimes get a toddler to mimic the “sorry” words but they don’t mean them. They are doing it to avoid punishment or being scooped up and hauled home for nap time. That other kid had something they wanted, and so they took it. They felt like being naked and busting ass in that crowded room. They really wanted to scare the shit out of you. That kid was way too close to them, so they made them go away. They’d do it all again in a heartbeat and probably will do it all again when they don’t think you’re looking.
Toddlers are badasses. They also give zero fucks about other people’s feelings. They’ll pretend like they feel bad, patting the head of a friend they practically knocked unconscious the second before, if someone praises them for it. But don’t let them fool you — they do not care.
They are just little pint-sized egos walking around. It’s their world, and you’re just living in it and mostly getting in the way of all the fun they would like to be having. Like using peanut butter on the throw pillows or living the pants-free life that they dream about. Like having every toy in the world be theirs for the grabbing the very second they want it. Like running through parking lots away from their mothers because they have legs that can go super-fast, so bye.
They don’t understand that saying sorry means you should genuinely regret the decision you just made. That you should feel remorse, or guilt, or some other emotion associated with making bad choices.
They don’t even probably understand the concept of regret except for when they get caught. Toddlers should really all wear T-shirts that say, “No Regrets,” because that’s how they’re living their lives, one tantrum at a time.
So after having two toddlers, and realizing the extent of their apathetic feelings for others, I came to realize the the best way to handle a situation where they’ve made another bad choice is that I usually apologize on their behalf and move on. “I’m sorry that happened! It’s not nice to hit our friends. I hope you’re okay!” Because I am sorry that my kid hurt your kid, or took their toy, or ruined story time with their noxious butt fumes.
I just keep modeling the behavior of an empathetic human being and hope that someday they will understand that pulling someone’s hair because it looks pretty is not the right thing to do. I’m confident this is more effective than forcefully trying to make them say words that they don’t know the true meaning of, exacerbating the situation, and making it more uncomfortable for everyone, including the victim.
And to parents, this is what I say;
“So sorry, he’s just kind of asshole right now. We’re working through it.” Because that’s the truth, and most of the time other parents just give me a nod of solidarity and understanding.
And they do eventually turn into humans who care about other humans. I promise.