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Along with “please” and “thank you,” saying sorry is one of the earliest phrases that many parents teach their children. They do this because it’s an important nicety: people say “sorry” to show remorse, to ask for forgiveness, and to show basic concern and awareness of others’ needs.

But when do children really understand the significance of apologies? When do they begin to care whether a person shows remorse for doing harm — for ripping up a child’s picture, for example, or pushing someone to the ground?

These are some of the questions driving the research of Dr. Amrisha Vaish, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. She sat down with us recently to discuss findings from her John Templeton Foundation-funded projects, which have investigated when forgiveness emerges in children, and how children decide whom to forgive or not to forgive.

Finding answers to these questions could help generate insights into how children build cooperative relationships and, ultimately, flourishing lives.

Saying Sorry: A Step Toward Healing

What is forgiveness? In the definition used by Dr. Vaish, it’s about emotion: forgiveness means taking negative feelings about a transgressor and replacing them with positive ones. It’s a way for people to allow a transgressor to repair relationships. And in adult society, the key to eliciting forgiveness is for a transgressor to show remorse.”Forgiveness really has to come from the victim,” says Vaish. “That’s where it has to take place.”

When do children begin to respond positively to those who show guilt and regret for doing wrong? Vaish’s research suggests that it emerges around the time of kindergarten. “By age four, children respond positively to transgressors who explicitly apologize. By five, children respond positively to transgressors who show remorse,” she says.

She tested cases where children were the victims of a minor transgression. Two experimenters had children draw pictures, and then pretended to accidentally tear them. One researcher then made an expression of remorse and said,  “Oh no, it was my fault,” The other was neutral. A third experimenter then asked the child several questions. Who would you expect to transgress again? And how would you divide three flowers among these two people?

Across the board, five-year-olds showed a robust preference for the person who showed remorse.  Four-year-olds did not.

To Forgive or Not to Forgive

Vaish reviewed several other studies investigating related questions. Are children selective about whom they will forgive? Do they prefer people seen as part of their “in-group,” and if so, in what situations? In one study, researchers found that children showed some preference for their in-group, but cared more about the behavior of individuals. Such findings give a “hopeful message,” says Vaish.

Of course, the broader moral question of when forgiveness — and saying sorry — is appropriate remains complicated. “When to forgive or not to forgive? These are really complicated questions,” she says. “There are really legitimate concerns about when forgiveness is reasonable,” she says.

But when forgiveness is the right response, to repair social bonds or simply as a matter of morality, such studies help us to understand how humans learn to cooperate, and to decide whom they can trust.

Still Curious?

Explore more of the great minds from across the sciences and humanities in our other Speakers Series conversations.