Ask Dr. Mary

Is She Really Sorry?

Q. My 3-year-old daughter is well-behaved most of the time, but sometimes she acts up. I'm afraid, however, that she isn't always aware that what she's done is wrong. For example, last week she was mean to her grandma and I sent her to her room. Later, she seemed almost excited to tell her daddy what she'd done. Can a 3-year-old be remorseful?

A. Probably not. Young children may have a general understanding of their actions, but not really comprehend the full significance of what they have done. Three-year-olds are just beginning to identify their emotions, label them correctly and act out their feelings in socially appropriate ways. It will be a few years before they can make the leap to understanding the feelings of others.

Preschoolers gather clues about what's right and wrong by watching our responses to their behavior. Your daughter will also gauge the seriousness of a situation by what you do. For example, if you punish her by telling her to go to her bedroom which is full of wonderful books to read and toys to play with, she may not understand she's done something wrong. However, if you tell her to immediately turn off her favorite television program because of her behavior, she'll probably get your point.

But you need to go farther than punishment because that only says to a child, "You did something wrong." Take the next step and teach your child what right behavior looks like.

For example in this situation, your could sit down with your daughter and ask her: "What would be a nice way to talk with Grandma? What are some things you might talk about? Then just before Grandma's next visit, remind her of what you talked about. Use simple language so your child clearly understands: "It makes me happy when you talk nicely to Grandma, because I love her very much. It makes Grandma feel good, too. When we have a good time together, she'll want to come back and visit us."

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