We all make mistakes, and our kids do too. We want to teach them responsibility and socially correct behavior when they goof. Here are some things to consider as we guide our kids.
1. A Forced Apology is a Lie
I was with a friend who had two kiddos, preschool age at the time. One child hit the other upside the head with a wood and metal train and the injured child was, understandably crying hysterically. "Say you're sorry!” was the immediate reaction. This is what's supposed to happen of course; as parents we're supposed to teach our children to apologize when they hurt someone else. This is part of the cultural contract we have as parents when we raise our kids. The offending child dutifully said the words; but he was laughing. "You have to mean it!” I remember thinking that we have no way to force a child to "mean it.”
So if the child doesn't mean it, then if we're forcing a child to say the words "I'm sorry,” we are, by definition, telling the child to lie.
2. Saying, "I'm Sorry" Doesn't Necessarily Fix Anything
The words "I'm sorry” doesn't take away physical pain. Those words are not a magic spell that make hurt feelings or body part automatically feel better. There needs to be more to our lesson than regurgitating two words and moving on. As an object lesson, take a sheet of paper. Crumple it up. Smooth it out. Say you're sorry. It didn't remove the damage to the paper. And it doesn't remove a person's hurt either.
3. It's Not about You
I'm sure you've seen and/or experience it. Person A expresses their pain/ disappointment/ frustration. Person B person says "I'm sorry” over and over again. But those words don't actually convey empathy; they're used to get the hurt person to shut up about what they're feeling.
It's hard to be around people experiencing unpleasant emotions. "I'm sorry” can be used to silence these emotions for the sake of the listener. It is a way to brush off the person's experience. It is used as a shield.
Or the "I'm sorry”-er may feel guilt and simply doesn't want to own their part in the event in question. It can have the "yeah, yeah, you're mad at me now be quiet” attitude.
Fix 1 - "Make it Better"
Instead of requiring a child to say "I'm sorry,” require that they "make it better.” This could be offering a hug, giving a toy, or, yes, saying sorry if it's actually felt. But if they don't feel it, it doesn't require an untruth. It still teaches responsibility for actions and allows the child to be creative in how they correct their mistake. This is possible for toddlers through adults.
Fix 2 - Change Your Focus
Rather than pouring attention onto the offending child, show empathy to the hurt child. Especially for young children, this removes negative attention from the offending child to avoid accidentally reinforcing the behavior. It allows them to see the consequences of their actions without being attacked. It models concern for people who need help instead of anger at those who make a mistake.
Fix 3 - Practice Empathy
Actively listen to the hurt person. Show empathy, step into their shoes and truly understand why they're hurt. Let them know that you comprehend their feelings by telling them what you see. Then, and only then, say "I'm sorry." When the person knows they are understood, then the apology means something. When the offender takes responsibility for their part in the hurtful interaction, they demonstrate true remorse. Even if the person apologizing isn't at fault, if they are sad for a situation, demonstrating they "get it” shows they're trying to be with the hurt person instead of trying to shut them up. The pre-step to the apology promotes healing. This skill requires more verbal tools and may not be appropriate very young children; but as adults we can model it so they will have the example when they're ready.
Melissa and Ellen are birth doulas, childbirth educators, placenta encapsulation specialists, and Parent Effectiveness Training instructors serving the Denver, CO area. They are passionate about pregnancy, birth, baby care, and parenting. They bring over twenty years of combined experience to their premium childbirth classes, doula support, parenting classes, and placenta encapsulation services in the metro Denver area.