When children are young
- Model apologies – Young children learn best through modeling. When you are in the wrong about things, apologize to them and others easily. If they see and hear you being comfortable with apologies, they are more likely to follow suit.
- Suggest and encourage apologies – I have read that others suggest we not encourage young children to apologize, because they don’t know what they are saying, they don’t understand the meaning of, “I’m sorry.” While I agree, young children don’t often understand the full meaning, I chalk up encouraging them to say, “I’m sorry,” to a general social grace. We do encourage young children to say, “please,” and, “thank you,” and, “excuse me,” which they also don’t understand. I think it’s fine to encourage them to build good social habits.
As children are older
- Give choices about how to apologize – Once your child is five years old, I think it’s fine to offer choices such as writing a note or drawing a picture to apologize. You might offer choices of apologizing now or in a few minutes, saying it out loud or whispering it in someone’s ear (provided that the receiver is agreeable).
- Give time to apologize – It can actually be helpful to the situation to give kids a few minutes to calm down and collect themselves. They might take a minute to think about what happened and decide what to say before apologizing.
Discuss the three parts of apologies
- Say it – Saying, “I’m sorry,” is the first part of an apology. It’s great if it’s heartfelt and honest. It can be dismissive if it’s just thrown out there, or worse, yelled at another child.
- Feel it – Feeling sorry for what you’ve done is the next step. You might ask your child to think about how they would feel in the other child’s position. You might discuss how they feel now about what happened and about having to apologize. You might touch base after and talk about how it feels after an apology.
- Do something to make it better – Making amends is another important step. This might be helping a friend hold their ice pack on a related injury or helping rebuild the block tower that was knocked down.
Avoid forced apologies
Forced apologies happen in one of two ways. Either the child is angry and resists having to apologize, or the child is embarrassed and hesitant to apologize. In both cases, the child’s own negative emotions often get in the way of developing a sense of empathy.
If your child is angry and not feeling sorry about what happened, and you force the apology, the result is predictable. Your angry child likely will storm over to the other, bark, “SORRY!” at them and leave abruptly. Rather than teaching your child to feel empathy, this situation seems to provoke feelings in the opposite direction. Your child may actually resent the other child more for his role in this interaction. The resentment overrides any developing empathy. Your child also learns that saying sorry, even if he doesn’t mean it, is enough to fix a wrong-doing.
If your child is embarrassed by the idea of having to apologize, but is forced to do so, the result differs but is just as predictable. With a push, your child may slowly approach the other child and then quietly say, “sorry,” while fighting back tears. Empathy requires the child to focus on the thoughts and feeling of another. When a child is embarrassed, he is thinking mostly of himself which inhibits the development of empathy.
Rather than force an apology from an angry or embarrassed child, you will have more success building a sense of empathy and teaching the language of sincere apologies through modeling. In the case of anger, take your child with you and say something like, “I am so sorry he did that. I would like to make it better.” Here, the parent is speaking for himself. The parent is sorry, the child is not. In the case of embarrassment, take your child with you and say something like, “he is so sorry. He would like to make it better.” The child actually is sorry, just reluctant to address it. Your child will have the benefit of hearing a sincere apology and optimally will be better able to focus on the feelings of the other child rather than his own.