1) “Say you’re sorry,” is a common phrase parents turn to when they see their child do something wrong to someone else. What is the problem with reacting in this way and forcing a kid to apologize?

Children who are let off the hook with a simple “I’m sorry.” essentially get a free pass. Often they aren’t sorry—with an altercation that involved hitting or taking a toy or being “sassy,” the hurtful act is often calculated and perhaps a bit satisfying to the perpetrator.

Another example:

My granddaughter has learned a new card game with us. She routinely bends the cards, misdeals, and gets up to dance around between turns. We talk about protocols with playing cards, but it’s hard to recall all at age eight. We hear “I’m sorry” throughout the game to the point that it’s annoying. We have learned the set the stage at each round, prompting her regarding her deal, for example. It may feel a bit like nagging, but her skills are slowly improving.

Forcing an apology is quick and easy. However, it doesn’t get at the underlying issue.

2) What do you recommend that parents say instead?

After stepping in, ask the children to talk through what happened. Usually the responses will be one-sided. Asking the child to describe the other child’s point of view is difficult because children are very egocentric for many years. Their world revolves around themselves, which is natural. Giving starters, such as I think (the other child) feels (insert a feeling, such as hurt, frustrated, angry) when I (fill in the blank). Give some addition prompts as necessary to get the conversation going. 

Then ask the children how they could have handled things differently.

If the situation is child/parent, the apologies may be so frequent that they are completely meaningless. Explore the underlying issue. (See Number 3.)

This takes time, which isn’t always convenient, but it leads to a better understanding. 

3) What makes a “good” apology, and what can parents do to encourage kids to feel empathy and apologize in a genuine way?

A good apology goes beyond saying “sorrrrrry.” Encourage the child to expand. 

I am so sorry. I should have asked if we could take turns.

I am so sorry. Can we talk about why i got so frustrated that I yelled at you?

Now I have a better idea of how you feel. Here’s how I’ll behave next time. I’ll see if we can talk.

Gee, I wish I had taken a deep breath and used quiet words instead of yelling at you. Can you forgive me? I’m really sorry.

4) Should parents ever apologize on behalf of a child, as in, “I’m sorry Max threw his car at Ella.” Why or why not?

Sometimes adults make general apologies or throw the blame back on the offended party: “I’m sorryyou feel bad. I’m sorry things fell apart.” Apologizing for a child’s behavior in  addition to a sincere apology from the child is valid. It’s embarrassing when your child misbehaves. It’s quite natural to want to let the other parent know that you recognize there was a problem. However, apologizing on behalf of your child to the other misses a learning opportunity for your child. And it takes your child off the hook, indicating that they don’t have to take responsibility for misbehavior.

There are cases, however, where true accidents happen. No single act prompted the altercation or misbehavior. In that case it’s valid to say, “Wow, things really fell apart, didn’t they. I think we all need to take a short time-out (or breather or quiet time) before we keep playing. I’m going to then have a quick conversation with (my child) before we continue.” Having that quiet time can turn the situation around quite naturally.

5) How can parents model empathy and authentic apologies for children?

Again, it’s the context of the apology that should shape it. A simple “I’m sorry” signals the attitude that nothing more is needed. Putting the apology in context gives it more meaning. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I was tired, and I lost my temper. What can we do together to avoid this in the future?” “I’m sorry I couldn’t play a game with you. I truly didn’t have time. I have an idea for tomorrow. I would like you to help me with the laundry. Then we would have time for the game.” 

In other situations, prompting more ownership is wise. “I accept your apology. However, I want you to tell me how you are going to avoid forgetting to leave your shoes in the way because this isn’t the first time I’ve tripped over them. Let’s figure out a plan.”

6) Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Sometimes we parents or grandparents are facing a disappointment that could not be avoided. A pet dies, a friend moves away, a toy gets broken. That is when a sincere discussion that uses the word “sorry” takes on a different meaning. “I’m sorry your friend is moving away. I know you are hurt and will miss them. Let’s plan some ways to keep in touch. That might help you fell better.”

I recall when my son wanted to hold a family heirloom—my great grandfather’s pocket watch. It was on display on a shelf. I told him he could hold it but not play with it. Later he was roller skating—with the watch in his hand—and he dropped it. This was one of the rare moments when an apology couldn’t do much. The watch was beyond repair and he was disobedient as well. And I was angry. We had a long discussion about how some things can’t be undone—sorry doesn’t work. I had to learn to forgive him, but he had to work to realize he had deeply disappointed me. Conversations are about all that can be done. As I think back, he never did something so foolhardy again, so perhaps it was useful.

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Written by Dr. Suzanne Barchers

Dr. Suzanne Barchers from lingokids.com is a national parenting expert.

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