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When We Are Not Supposed to Teach Our Kids to Say “I’m Sorry”

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I have been the child forced to apologize. Except, I was an adult at the time. Although my actions were reasonable, a manager felt challenged and I had to apologize. That’s when I realized that I’d done this dozens of times to my kids. Thinking back, they always seemed angry. That day, I realized that no one should be forced into an apology. There are valid reasons that parents encourage their children to apologize. The goal is usually to bring a conflict to resolution quickly. Also, they often want to ensure that the child understands that it is not okay to hurt someone emotionally.

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So, there is a divide between honesty and virtue. Which lesson wins? Is there a way that both lessons can be communicated? I took a moment to conduct my own research by interviewing the 8-year old in the backseat. I noticed she was relaxed, watching the trees go by and figured it was a good time to pose the question.

Me: Mind if I ask a question?

Her: (Looking confused that I asked if I could ask) Sure!

Me: Okay, you know how sometimes you may have a fight, do something or say things and grown-ups make you apologize.

Her: Yes.

Me: How does that make you feel. (Looking up at her through the rearview mirror, it was interesting to see her light up as though she’d finally been given a change to unburden.)

Her: It makes me feel angry. Like, sometimes I don’t even want to say “I’m sorry” because I’m not. But I still say it because I don’t want to get in trouble.

Me: Well, sometimes don’t you think that you should apologize?

Her: Yes, sometimes. But not all of the time. And most of the time I don’t feel like I get a change to make my point. I don’t like it.

Me: Okay, I just wanted to know.

It was a great learning experience because it was right on par with a study in Psychology Today. In an April, 2016 article by Dr. Denise Cummins, she explains by age group when mandated versus spontaneous apologies are most effective. Mandated apologies can be very effective for younger children, she explains, to improve social interactions. For children beginning around 6-years old the apologies were less sincere and spontaneous apologies become more effective, but should still be encouraged so they learn to build good relationships. It is important, though, to hear them out to understand why they may not want to apologize. The may help you get them to the apology.

She recommends 3 basic steps for helping your child maintain good relationships:

  1. Encourage younger children to apologize so that hurt feelings are addressed and the relationship is preserved.

2.  With elementary aged children, consider whether the apology would be sincere so that there will be true impact in mending the relationship.

3.  Offer to make restitution, whether the hurt feelings were intentional.

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