My neighbour is a psychologist who disagrees with me about whether we should make our children say sorry.
Elizabeth (not her real name) thinks apologies need to be taught like manners. When a child forgets to say please or thankyou, we instantly remind them and require manners from them. Elizabeth suggests that the same needs to occur with apologies. When a child does something that should be accompanied with an “I’m sorry”, parents should require it right there and then – while the situation is still going.
As an example, if Elizabeth’s two children, Will and Chloe, are fighting and 3 year-old Will hits his sister Chloe (aged 5), Elizabeth will separate them and comfort Chloe. She will then require Will to ‘say sorry’. Then Chloe will be asked to say ‘Thank you for saying sorry.’
Elizabeth suggests that to respond to an apology with ‘It’s okay’ is wrong, because when people do the wrong thing it’s not okay.
Elizabeth said, “I definitely demand that the children apologise in the moment. I’ll do it nicely, but the kids need to know that they’re not getting anything – we don’t move beyond this situation – until they give an appropriate apology.” Elizabeth acknowledged that sometimes her children are in tears before they actually apologise, but she’s okay with that.
When I asked her why she feels so strongly about forcing children to apologise, Elizabeth told me many of her clients in relationship therapy “Never said sorry. It’s not part of their vocabulary. Regardless of what they’ve done wrong, they don’t say those words. They show they’re sorry by buying things and making it up in other ways. But the words never come.”
I believe that children should be taught and encouraged to apologise, but my opinion differs as to whether they should be forced to apologise.
Children, like adults, don’t want to say sorry when they feel they have to. When it’s forced, it feels inauthentic; meaningless. It is spat across the room with no contrition. And it isn’t really an apology. Even when the apology is delivered the way we want it delivered – politely – there is still no meaning behind it.
I suggest that children be asked to apologise, but ‘in the moment’ it’s unlikely that it will mean anything. If the apology is not good enough, my recommendation is to get out of the moment. We should tend to a child who is hurt and ensure they’re ok. Then wait until the child who ‘needs to apologise’ is willing to talk about what happened.
Because they’re unlikely to want to talk, I suggest we sit with them, hug them, and assure them they’re not in trouble. We just need to talk. When they feel safe, talk about the issue, asking them to consider how it felt from the injured person’s perspective. There are almost always two sides to every story. They may have felt justified in their actions. Rather than apportioning blame, we need to simply help them recognise that they hurt someone or did wrong by someone. Once they can see that their actions hurt them, we should ask them, “What is the right thing to do now?”
I think every apology should contain four elements:
- I’m sorry.
- I know that what I did hurt you (or whatever the outcome of the action was).
- What I did was wrong.
- Will you forgive me.
As we talk with our children, we can help them to understand that these elements make up a full apology.
You’ll note that when a person asks for forgiveness, the injured party doesn’t have to say “That’s ok”, or even “Thanks for the apology.” Instead, they simply say, “Yes I forgive you.”
What Elizabeth and I disagree on:
- The timing of the apology. Elizabeth says it should be right now. I say do it when it can be done sincerely.
- Whether we should force our child to apologise. I say, “No way.” Elizabeth says, “Definitely.”
What Elizabeth and I share in common:
- We both want our children to learn to apologise and expect that they will.
- We both want those apologies to be honest and sincere.
- Apologies need to be modelled. Parents need to be willing to say sorry and children will learn from their parents by example.
The last word
The cool thing about the fact that I am writing this article is that I get to have the last word -
Every child (and adult) makes mistakes. Saying sorry for those mistakes matters. But morality takes a long time to develop. Rather than rushing it and forcing apologies, I believe we should be gentle in the way we encourage empathy, and help our children learn what a true apology is so they can offer them meaningfully.
Sorry Elizabeth :)