Knowing how to make amends is a very valuable life skill. As children grow they have many opportunities to apologize and make amends. While we would like children to know how to say “I am sorry”, often children will apologize in their own way.
Wired for Empathy
Children are born with the capacity for empathy, understanding and love. It is how to navigate social norms and how to meet parental expectations surrounding apologies that isn’t always clear.
I am Sorry
These are important words we wish for our children to learn to use but teaching children to say sorry and really mean it is not so much about insisting on specific words.
Feelings of remorse and a genuine willingness to make amends is much more than just repeating words. In fact, insisting on an apology can take away from the real experience of remorse. The type of remorse that is constructive and necessary for learning to make amends. Forcing apologies also doesn’t teach accountability and responsibility either.
In Their Own Way
I remember one sunny afternoon when my daughter was playing tag with a group of children. Suddenly, she ran into a friend and they both startled and fell to the ground. My daughter rolled over and offered her friend a smile and her hand so they could both get up. They looked at each other, giggled and then kept on playing. They didn’t say sorry to one another. But through the giggles and continued play, it was clear they had made amends.
Teaching Children To Say Sorry Without Insisting On Apologies
It might be tempting to insist our child apologize whenever they make a mistake, like hurting a friend or breaking something. Especially if you are feeling like it is socially expected. But insisting on a rushed apology, just for the sake of appeasing other parents can highlight in your child feelings of shame and discouragement.
Children are wired for empathy, and insisting on apologies is neither necessary, nor helpful for children to learn to recognize and utilize that feeling well.When it comes to teaching children how to apologize and making amends, guidance and patience are more valuable.
Creating opportunities for Children To Learn How to Make Amends
Listen with curiosity
When your child has hurt someone or made a mistake and you believe they might need help making amends, try to find out their side of the story. Before insisting that your child say sorry, stay open and curious about what happened. It might sound like “Can you tell me what happened?” or “I’d like to know what is going. Maybe I can help.”
Aiming for understanding without blame translates to your child feeling like they are safe to express themselves honestly, even if they did make a poor or unnecessary choice. Having a blame and shame free conversations can lead to the child feeling a constructive sense of regret. The book Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids has a great chapter on creating a blame free home.
Encourage your child to notice how they are feeling about the situation or mistake. And then also encourage them to think about how someone else is feeling and what they might be thinking. Even preschoolers can answer simple questions like “How are you feeling about what just happened?” and “How do you think getting hit made Kayla feel?” “What do you think you can do to help her feel better?” These are all small but important step towards learning how to channel empathy for making amends.
Patience and Flexibility
A rushed sorry is not nearly as valuable than thought out way apology. Children often need time to process their mistake before they feel genuinely remorseful and ready to make amends. Admitting a mistake can be tricky and emotionally bumpy! Allowing time and flexibility for the genuine feelings to emerge (which might involve tears and denial before acceptance kicks in) is more “teachable” to a child than being rushed to express feelings that are fake.
Notice the Sincere Apologies
Apologies from children that are truly genuine and heartfelt tend to be spontaneous. A smile, a big hug, or offering to share a favorite toy.
Children might apologize in ways that we adults just don’t expect, and this is ok. Like that day at the park, neither my daughter or her friend needed to say “I am sorry.” Their actions and kindness towards her each other said it all. If I had rushed in to insist on apologies, I probably would have ruined that special giggle filled moment between friends.
Model Making Amends
It’s practically impossible to navigate this parenting journey without making mistakes so take any opportunity you find to model making amends. This involves owning up to your mistakes and NOT trying to share or pass blame, even in moments that you might feel your buttons pushed. Modeling taking ownership for your mistakes in so valuable to teaching children to make amends. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, psychologist and mother of four, in her book Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child’s True Potential says:
If you said or did something you regret, in the heat of the moment, don’t hesitate to offer a brief but sincere apology.[…] Remember not to undercut your apology by saying “I’m sorry but you should / shouldn’t have…”
The Take Away
When it comes to helping children learn to say sorry, remember that more valuable than the words our children use, it is what they take away from each moment. What truly counts as they grow is the ability to recognize opportunities to learn from mistakes and the willingness to do better next time. Having children that feel able to tell the truth and own up to their mistakes starts with us being open to accepting that mistakes will happen.
Teaching children the value of a genuine apology is worthwhile. Sometimes it just takes a bit more time than requesting they simply say “I am sorry” right away.
Have you ever insisted your child say “I am sorry” to someone? What do you think, can children learn to apologize without being forced to do so?
Peace & Be Well,