Q: My kids won’t apologize to each other. It drives me crazy! Usually they just stand there and say nothing, and if I push it they grunt like a caveman. I’m worried what will happen (or may already be happening) to their friendships and future relationships if they can’t learn to do this. How do you teach a child to say they’re sorry?
A: You are not the first parent to struggle with this. I bet some of those prehistoric cave paintings were cave-parents trying to figure out this very thing.
What’s the real point of an apology? It’s not merely to say the words “I’m sorry” but that’s what we teach when we force someone to apologize (even if we follow up with, “Now say it like you mean it!”). The point of an apology is to try to heal a relationship by taking ownership of a behavior, by demonstrating remorse for having hurt someone, and by indicating that we intend not to hurt them in this way in the future. A real apology is about healing and connection rather than shame and weakness. It gives both parties a chance to feel good about themselves and each other and allows the relationship to move forward. Along the way, apologizing can help a person develop empathy and social skills, learn to organize thoughts, and develop the detailed language needed to express them well.
It’s understandable why parents try to force their kids to apologize – they want to make it right for the victim and they want the perpetrator to be responsible and own up to his wrongdoing. But a forced apology usually isn’t genuine and typically doesn’t work. It’s more likely to make both parties mad – the apologizer feels controlled and ashamed and the apologizee feels insulted a second time. Fake apologies often just increase spite and competition. So we want to teach rather than force kids to apologize. After all, we’re not born knowing how to give a great apology and it’s an important social skill. The first thing to remember, as with anything else we want our kids to learn – model, model, model it. Let your child see you apologize to others, and of course apologize to your child whenever it’s appropriate. Not only is it teaching by demonstration but it also shows that everybody makes mistakes and apologizing is healthy, effective, and a sign of strength.
Here are some ideas on instructing your child in the fine art of apologizing:
- Wait until his anger has subsided. When angry, a person needs to be heard before they can listen well. If the person needing to apologize is still emotionally charged from the event they are not yet in a place where they can hear you and be vulnerable enough to apologize.
- In private, talk non-judgmentally about the event, empathize with him, discuss the relationship and why he might want to repair it, help him empathize with the other person, and help him problem-solve. Empower him to apologize. A sincere apology has three or four parts: it requires acknowledging what you did that was hurtful (“I broke your crayon.”), how it affected the other person (“That hurt your feelings and also you weren’t able to finish your drawing.”), possibly some insight as to why you behaved that way (“It was hard for me to wait my turn for that color.”) and what you will do differently next time (“Next time I’ll work on something else until you’re done.”). Help him construct a solid apology, give him a chance to practice it with you, and then support him in apologizing to the other person when he’s ready.
- Encourage him NOT to apologize if he doesn’t mean it. This will help him learn to apologize sincerely rather than using it as a free pass (“I can do this thing again as long as I say I’m sorry.”)
- Remind him to listen to what the recipient has to say after he apologizes. Warn him that the other person might not accept his apology, and that’s their right. Teach him how to gracefully deal with that. (It’s also a good idea to teach your child how to accept apologies gracefully.)
- For minor squabbles, a formal apology might be unnecessary. In that case it’s still a good idea to “make peace” or “repair,” whatever that means to the people involved. It might not include any words. Your child might hug the other person or help them fix the physical damage he caused. He might draw a picture for the other person, write a note about what he likes about them, or suggest playing a game they want to play.
- Rather than getting into a power struggle about him apologizing, or threatening consequences for not apologizing or repairing, emphasize your faith that your child will make a good choice about how to repair. Expressing confidence about someone’s character is a stronger motivator than expressing concern.
Remember that learning a skill, especially one so entwined with intense emotions, is a process. There will be trial-and-error and discomfort and lots of times when it doesn’t turn out the way you want it to, especially in the beginning. Stick with it and eventually your cave-kids will start issuing apologies like civilized folk.