Its a moment that every parent is familiar with, the kids are playing rough, and then one begins to wail in pain while the other gives you the dear in headlights look. This happened not too long ago while we had company and our visitor attempted to get my son to say he was sorry after a sibling hug turned quickly into a chokehold. Being the strong-willed threenager he is, he dug his heels in and refused. Our guest repeatedly asked him to apologize, and so I stepped in and explained we don’t force apologies. She looked extremely bewildered and with all the chaos happening I realized I never got a chance to explain our perspective. So here we go, this is why we don’t make our son say he is sorry.
I don’t know about you, but I remember being told to say I was sorry after fighting with my siblings even if I didn’t mean it. My sister and I were forced to say it as we clenched our teeth and mumbled, “I’m sorry” while resentfully looking away. It didn’t put a good taste in my mouth about apologies, and in fact, my husband would probably say that was the last time I ever said I was sorry. But I digress. Turns out there is actually some research to back this all up.
A recent study from the University of Michigan confirms that children as young as 4 can indeed tell the difference between an authentic apology and a coerced apology. The study also found that children are likely to feel better after they’ve been given an authentic apology whereas they can actually feel worse after a coerced apology. The research study concluded that the best way to teach children to authentically apologize was to help them soothe the victims hurt feelings and model empathy.
Another reason I feel a forced apology at the moment doesn’t work is because usually, that offending child is angry or upset about getting in trouble. Maybe the child hit because his brother took his toy. He feels it is unjust that he should apologize when he was wronged. In this emotional state, he can’t feel sorry for hitting because he is stuck being angry about the toy. Any demanded apology will be made just to make the situation over or perhaps out of fear of punishment. Hitting is obviously never ok, but we can teach that lesson much better when not in an emotionally charged situation. Apologies can be beneficial even if they happen hours later or days later.
All of this has been part of our parenting philosophy for quite some time and I’ll be honest, I didn’t know how it was going to pan out. Like a lot of things in parenting, you just do your best based off of what you know and hope your kid doesn’t turn into a raging sociopath later in life. (He’s only 3, so I can’t say we have all the data, but things look hopeful at this point) I have to say; on the whole, this feels like it is working. I’ve made a conscious effort to apologize to my kids if I yell or say something I didn’t mean. If I was short with them or hurt their feelings, I apologize. When my son hurts another child, I always point out the crying face and the hurt expression. We tend to the other child and check in with him to make sure he is ok. Even if my son isn’t an active participant in tending to the child, he’s taking it all in and seeing it modeled.
We’ve been seeing my son authentically apologize for a while now, and it is pretty amazing. He has shown he can tell when he’s done something wrong and knows that saying “sorry” is an attempt to repair. Now let’s be clear, he doesn’t apologize all the time, and it’s been really hard to hold back on demanding apologies when he hurts his baby sister. I feel like I want to stick up for her or I want to really hit home that the behavior isn’t ok. But even when he doesn’t apologize, I can tell he feels apologetic because he won’t want to look at her crying face or he will avoid eye contact with me when I try to address it with him in the moment. While there is a part of me that is frustrated by this, I know that this is actually a good thing and he’s building his moral compass.
I am by no means say this is the only way to go. This is what works for my family and many other families I know. I have known many loving and amazing parents that suggest saying sorry after a transgression or maybe even have a family rule of apologizing when you’ve hurt someone. I think these can also be effective strategies at getting kids in the habit of apologizing as long as the apologies are more prompted than forced. One thing I try to ask myself as a parent is “what is the lesson I want my child to learn in this situation?” I don’t want him to learn a phrase or a set of words, I want him to learn the feeling of feeling sorry.