“Oww, that hurt! Mom, James bumped me!” When our kids don’t follow the rules or hurt someone physically or emotionally, we want them to say they’re sorry. And not just the words, because they often aren’t genuine and can be said as a way of getting parents off their back or moving past the situation quickly. We want them to say sorry as a way of acknowledging their wrongdoing or the impact their behavior has had on someone else. And to learn not to do it again.
That’s asking a lot of our little people. Giving a genuine apology is a skill they can struggle with for various reasons. They can’t yet see things from another person’s perspective (empathy). And it can create a power dynamic where they feel like apologizing means giving in. Also, feeling guilty about their behavior can lead to shame which can stop them from admitting any wrongdoing.
Learning to Apologize is Important
When an apology is genuine, it shows empathy and personal responsibility. These are necessary skills for maintaining strong relationships. When a child learns how to recognize their impact on another person and how this might make another person feel (empathy), they genuinely learn how to change their behavior so that they don’t hurt their friends, family, and people around them. This helps them better navigate relationships and improves the quality of these relationships as they learn to understand and consider the needs of others.
Teaching Your Child to Apologize (And Mean It!)
First, a child has to be on the receiving end of a genuine apology, one that comes from you. As parents, we aren’t perfect, so there will be plenty of opportunities for you to give your child a genuine apology. When a child feels the power of a genuine apology, they will better understand how to deliver a real apology.
Giving an apology can also feel vulnerable. We don’t like to be in the wrong. It makes us feel uncomfortable or can bring up feelings of shame which are quite hard to accept and sit with. So we show our children great strength and that there is nothing wrong with apologizing when we model this behavior.
Second, remember to identify the behavior, but don’t label your child. If we want to reduce shame, which can be a real barrier to delivering an apology, we need to identify the behavior we have an issue with and be careful not to label our kids. For example, “Hitting is not acceptable” (behavior) versus “You were bad for hitting.” It’s just a small tweak, but a significant one.
Structuring An Apology With These Steps
1. Say what you did wrong.
This doesn’t have to be an admission that they did it on purpose. It also doesn’t mean that the child did it intentionally or with malice (i.e., it doesn’t mean our children are “bad”). But we still have to apologize even if it was an accident. An example might be, “I’m sorry I broke your cup.” We don’t want to focus on the child being bad. Rather we focus on the outcome of their choices instead.
2. No buts!
An apology that includes a “but” is an excuse. “I’m sorry I broke your cup, but it shouldn’t have been on the floor” isn’t a genuine apology. It’s reframing the blame and not truly accepting their part. If it was an accident, you could still encourage your child to share that, but they still need to take responsibility for the outcome.
A more genuine apology attempt might include, “It was an accident, and I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry I broke your cup. I know it is your favorite.” Imagine that you were on the receiving end of both apologies. Which one do you think helps repair or maintain a strong relationship/bond? The second one, right? A genuine apology helps reduce conflict and demonstrates empathy because the person giving the apology truly understands the impact of their behavior (even if it was an accident).
3. Offer a solution.
When apologizing, encourage your child to come up with a solution to fix things for “next time.” An apology doesn’t always need a solution, but it can help set some ground rules or ideas for the future. For example, sibling rivalry or general sibling relationships are expected to share or respect their sibling’s belongings/time/boundaries, etc. With this step in the apology, the child names what they can be responsible for next time. Again, not reframing the blame.
For example, here’s the incorrect way to offer a solution: “It was an accident. I didn’t mean to break your cup. How about next time you don’t leave it on the floor, and then I won’t accidentally kick it.” A better way to offer a solution can go something like this: “It was an accident. I didn’t mean to break your cup. Next time I will look around before I start playing and see if I need to move anything out of the way.” This apology appropriately places the responsibility of consequences on the child’s actions instead of shifting the blame and corrupting the apology.
4. Ask for forgiveness.
Asking for forgiveness is an integral part of an apology. But know that it might not be given immediately. Asking for forgiveness involves some modeling for a child to learn it effectively. It’s essential to understand how to give and accept an apology with grace.
In this step, the child can ask, “Do/Can you forgive me?” Sometimes the other person can accept the apology immediately. But we have to help our children understand that the person might need some time or space before accepting the apology for bigger upsets or challenges. As a parent, you can model forgiveness by showing them that you have accepted their apology by not continuing to discuss their wrongdoing. The forgiveness and the apology both need to be genuine.
Teaching our kids the art of apologizing is crucial for their social development. Unfortunately, in our society, apologizing can be seen as a sign of weakness. We need to help our children learn to genuinely apologize, take personal responsibility, and develop their empathy. Learning how to apologize does take practice, though. So be patient with your child, show them how to do it, and be consistent in your support. Remember, practice makes perfect!
Ely, R., & Cleason, J. B. (2006). I’m sorry I said that: apologies in young children’s discourse. Journal of Child Language, 33, 599-620.
Smith, C. E., Anderson, D., & Straussberger, A. (2018). Say you’re sorry: Children distinguish between willingly given and coerced expressions of remorse. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly: Journal of Developmental Psychology, 64 (5). 275-308