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Saying Sorry—And Meaning It

Brynne Briegs, 4, may not know exactly what the words "I'm sorry" mean. But her mother, Karen, of Hillsborough, NJ, has already begun coaxing her to say them whenever she hits someone or hurts their feelings.

Even though preschoolers don't completely get the concept of empathy, teaching them to apologize in the right way can help them grasp it, says Aaron Lazare, M.D., author of On Apology. His three-step approach to a more sensitive child:

Be specific.

Simply telling your child to say, "I'm sorry," after she does something wrong may not mean anything to her. Instead, ask her to say, "I'm sorry for...", and then have her name the transgression, so she links the words with the deed.

Ask questions.

Rather than scolding your child, ask what she did to hurt someone. Questions like, "How did Sue feel when you kicked her? How would you feel if she did that to you?" will make it easier for her to understand why Sue might be upset, and why she should feel bad about her behavior.

Reward a well-stated apology.

If you praise your child when she's properly contrite, she's far more likely to say she's sorry in the future.

Of course, the best way to teach children empathy is by setting a good example. The more they see you showing respect for others with heartfelt apologies, the faster they'll learn to take responsibility for their actions.