“Say You’re Sorry!”


Today, this article came across my facebook newsfeed, all about how to teach our children to apologize “the right way.”  I can see how this would feel helpful and important for many parents and teachers, but  it just made me so sad, especially where toddlers and preschoolers are concerned.

Sad?   What could be more useful than teaching children how to apologize sincerely?  We all have adults in our lives whose apologies, even when purportedly heartfelt, feel hollow.   Many of us have spent time and big bucks on therapy to learn to apologize to one another in ways that are meaningful.   Why wouldn’t we want to teach these valuable skills to our children?

The answer?  Of course we want to teach these valuable skills to our children.  (To be fair, some of the ideas in the article are good teaching tools for older children who are more capable of understanding the intricacies of apologies or entering into far more complicated social environments.)  And of course, I appreciate a sincere and artful apology every bit as much as the next person–maybe even more (I really like me a good apology, let me tell you.)  The question lies not in the value of an apology, but in the way these things are best “taught.”

Let’s do a little experiment.  Take a moment.   Think back.   Your parents surely did some things that weren’t so great when you were growing up, just as we do some things that aren’t so great with our kids sometimes.  We yell, we consciously or unconsciously let our children know that we find their emotions or actions foolish, we somehow communicate to them that we wish they weren’t there.  We all do these things.  Think back.  Did your parents come to you and apologize?  Did they not only say “Sorry I yelled at you,” but “You know, yesterday, I yelled at you, and I really don’t like it when I do that.  You don’t deserve to be yelled at, it doesn’t improve anything for any of us, and I’m going to work very hard at not doing that as much.”    So?  What’d you come up with?  Were such conversations a part of your childhood?   No, I didn’t think so.*  Me neither.  No wonder we need apology lessons as adults.

*To the three of you who smiled in pleasant reminiscence and said, “Yes, my parents said things like that to me all the time,” let me just stay….WOW.   I hope you know how fortunate you are.

Now, let’s do another experiment.  Take another moment.  Do you apologize in an authentic way to your children?   If not, why not?  Do you think that it undermines your authority?  Do you think it shows weakness in you as a parent?  Are you uncomfortable taking responsibility in an overt way for things that you have done that have hurt others?  Do you see children as somehow different from adults, in relation to being “deserving” or in need of apology?  Are you worried that if you tell your children that you won’t do something again, and you fail at that effort and repeat the behavior, that they won’t take you seriously?  Has it just never occurred to you?   Do you believe that children who aren’t made to say “I’m sorry” will grow up to be unpenitent and amoral?

I’m going to make a bold suggestion here.  See all those questions up there?  Consider coming to terms with those.  They will not only make for a richer family life and a far better relationship with your children (and probably others,) but there’s an added bonus in that you can stop reading this interminable blog post, because you won’t need to teach your children to apologize.  They will know.

Okay, you’ve found me out.  I do not believe in directing children–mine, those in my care, or anyone else’s–to “say you’re sorry.”  [Caveat:  I have been known to say that feel that I or others deserve an apology, without specifying when or how that apology arrives (if it does).  When I have said that, it has pretty much only been to children 8 or 9 and up, never during the preschool years, the most common period in which we hear parents telling children to “say you’re sorry.”]  Why not?  I’m glad you asked.  There are several reasons–I offer them here for your consideration:

  • There is tremendous value in teaching our children to be genuine–to know their own minds and to be reflective about their own emotions.  When we demand an apology from a child who does not feel sorry, we are teaching them to betray their own minds and hearts.
  • As those of us who have had to learn about authentic apology know, sincere apology is a powerful tool in relationships.  When we demand an apology from a child, we are teaching them that it is enough to say words without feeling sorry for what they have done.  We are teaching them the value of empty words–quite the opposite from relationship building skills.  The fact is, words often don’t help–it’s empathic action that helps.
  • Lying is right up there on the list of things that really trouble parents.  If there is one thing that is guaranteed to make parents more upset than a child who won’t properly apologize, it’s a child who looks directly into their parent’s face and lies.   When we teach a child who does not feel sorry to apologize, we are teaching them to lie.
  • All children–and all adults–have our own emotional timetables, formed as a result of an interaction between temperament, personality, and experience.  Some of us move on very quickly when we are hurt–some of us take much longer.  Some of us hold grudges–some never do.  Some of us take longer to process emotions and thoughts.  Some of us are more naturally empathic and sensitive than others.  Some feel embarrassed or ashamed at what we know we have done wrong, and have to “come down” from those feelings before we can talk about it.  As adults, we recognize that being respected for our “speed” and the way we do things is an integral part of feeling cared for by others.  People who give us time when we need it are great gifts in our lives.  When we demand an apology from a child, that comes from our own timetable, not theirs.  In making such a demand, we are teaching them that we don’t respect that they are people who have their own temperaments, personalities, thoughts, and emotions, and processing speeds.
  • Parenting is not about the moment–it is about the long term.  It’s not about what they do in our presence, for fear of getting in trouble–it’s about what they do when no one is looking.  We want our children to do what is right because they feel it in their gut, to apologize because not to do so would feel wrong.  Research shows that children who are overtly instructed to do or say particular things–because we tell them to–are less likely to internalize those values for a lifetime.
  • Most important among these reasons?  It’s not necessary.  It’s just not something we need to teach.  Children learn not from what we tell them, but by what we do.  When we treat children with empathy, they become empathic.  When we show children respect, they treat others with respect.  When we apologize to others–including our children–in sincere and genuine ways and take full responsibility when we have done something wrong, they learn to apologize in their own time with sincerity and authenticity.  It’s true.  I promise.

Ah, but to do it, with the world watching.  These are the tricky moments of parenting, for sure.  Grandparents, other parents at the park, outright strangers who look askance when you don’t tell your child to apologize, like it’s clearly your life goal to raise one of those “bratty entitled” kids that are ruining the world (funny how every generation regards the younger generation in that way…it’s nothing new).  You know those times when people say “parenting is hard?”  Yeah.  It is.  And never harder than when people are judging and misunderstanding you.  Hang tough.  You’re doing the right thing.  But in the meantime, a few tools to consider:

  • If you have a young child, it’s perfectly okay to apologize to the other child if your child has done something that has made them upset or hurt.  If you do, apologize directly, not on your child’s behalf, so something along the line of “I’m sorry that happened to you.”  If you feel like it’s important to say something else, you can also acknowledge the events, by “narrating” what happened “She pushed you and you fell down.  It looks like that hurts.  I’m sorry that happened.”  Don’t worry–your child will hear you.  This is the teaching moment.
  • Sometimes when you are trying to follow this type of respectful philosophy, it can be uncomfortable when other parents demand that their child apologize to your child, even when they clearly don’t want to.  It won’t be the first or the last time that someone does something with their child that might upset you.  Try to let it go.  Different strokes for different folks (uh-oh, I think I just dated myself.)  If the parent is really insisting, and the child continues to resist, and the parent seems to be getting more upset with their child, you might try smiling and kindly saying “It’s ok, these things happen.”  Sometimes that can take the pressure off of a stressed out parent.
  • If someone challenges you outright, which is more likely to happen with relatives than with a parent at the park, do your best to stick to a brief and simple explanation of your choices, preferably in a way that isn’t a backhanded insult to them or their concerns.  The most effective thing I’ve found is something along the lines of “It’s important to me that she learns what it’s like to feel sorry.  We’re teaching it in a different way.  I know it seems odd, but it’s working for us”.   And be sure to smile and be kind when you are saying it–they probably don’t mean to criticize, they’re just concerned about your child learning appropriate manners–they might just have a different understanding of the way that children learn those things!
  • If you get sideways glances or disapproving looks, do your best to just let them slide off of your back (yes, easier said than done).  You are teaching your child all the right things by modeling patience, compassion, and respect through a lens of understanding child development.   Find a community of like-minded parents, if at all possible–even if that community is online–so that you can get support for the good work that you are doing!

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