For years, it has been debated on whether or not to have a child say “I’m sorry” to someone who they have wronged. I’ve seen parents and caregivers have 12 month olds say “I’m sorry” to peers – when obviously there is no feeling behind it. I have always felt that when we do that, we are actually demoting the sincerity of the apology and creating children who don’t really care about their actions.
My history of being sorry and apologizing
I’m a firm believer in not ever apologizing for something more than once. If I wrong you, repeatedly, then it means that I have a character flaw and can’t or won’t do anything about it. For example, if I cheat on you after a night of drunkenness – then I will feel regret. But, when I get caught, and say “I’m sorry” what am I sorry for? Getting caught? Cheating? Getting drunk? Breaking the rules of relationships? Hurting you? So – to say I’m sorry that one time…yes, that’s understandable as long as it’s sincere and NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN. If it happens again, then that’s not a fluke. That’s a character flaw. Okay – so drunken cheating is a bad example….let’s say that I have a texting relationship with someone far away. Texting something inappropriate one time…then thinking about it….realizing it was inappropriate and NEVER DOING IT AGAIN – that’s something to be sorry for. But carrying on a texting relationship for years? That’s a character flaw. It’s premeditated. It’s just wrong. Okay – so that’s another strong example. Stealing? Same thing. Heat of the moment – not thinking straight. Feeling regret and making it right and never doing it again… that’s feeling sorry about something.
An adult should never have to apologize for something twice. If it’s who you are, you can’t change that. If you’re a cheater, drunk, thief – that’s no reason to apologize. That’s a reason to get help. Also, don’t ever apologize for how I feel: “I’m sorry you’re mad” is not an apology. Think about that for a bit.
A less extreme example? I don’t know – being an adult is complicated and extreme by nature. Let’s talk about how to do “sorry” with kids.
How to get a child to say “sorry” and mean it
Let’s say that two children are playing nicely in the sand box. Bobby has a blue shovel; Katie has a red shovel. Katie takes the blue shovel from Bobby and makes him cry. Now she has two shovels. What now? The caregiver (parent, nanny, babysitter, teacher) goes over and talks to Bobby first.
Adult: Bobby, tell me what happened. Why are you crying? (don’t infer feelings by asking “why are you sad?” He might not be sad…)
Bobby: Katie took my shovel.
Adult: Oh Bobby, you go talk to Katie and tell her how you feel.
Bobby: Katie, I don’t like that. I’m not done.
Katie: But, but, yadda, yadda…
Adult: Katie, you took that shovel without asking for your turn. Tell Bobby that what you did was wrong.
Katie: Bobby, I shouldn’t have taken that shovel from you. It was wrong to not ask first. I won’t do it again. Do you forgive me? May I have a turn when you are finished? (with lots of coaching)
Adult: Bobby, do you forgive her? Can she be next?
Bobby: Of course! (Hugs Katie) I forgive you, here’s to blue shovel!
Okay, so you get the point:
The “victim” gets the attention first.
Don’t assign feelings to either one. Just make observations about behavior.
Help the “victim” address the “attacker” by using his or her words.
The “attacker” needs to say that what they did was wrong, why it was wrong, that they won’t do it again, and ask for forgiveness.
There must be a resolution of some sort with closure or further action needed.
Here’s another example of getting a child to apologize
Sara and Mike are riding tricycles. Their wheels get tangled up and both are screaming mad. Mike gets off his trike, bites Sara on the hand, and pushes her off the trike.
Adult: Sara! Are you okay? That looks like it hurt. What happened?
Sara: He…he…he…MY TRIKE!!!!
Adult: Mike, you get off the trike and come make this right with Sara, do you understand? You bit her and that is not okay. Talk to Sara and see if you can help her feel better.
Mike: Sara, I shouldn’t have bitten you. It was wrong for me to get so angry and hurt you. I won’t do it again. Do you forgive me? (of course with lots of adult help to say these things when the children are so young)
Sara: No, I don’t. I’m very hurt and angry right now. Maybe I’ll talk to you again soon, but my hand really hurts…
Anyway – so you get the idea. It’s not ever going to happen like this, but this is an example of where you’d like it to go eventually. Getting the children to just say sorry – that’s a piece of cake.
What if the child won’t apologize?
Then the child needs to go sit out until he or she is ready to at least make an attempt. By 24 months old, a child should be able to offer hugs. Then, the adult needs to role play the situation for the children – saying the words, getting the children to look at each other, nodding and hugging – that sort of thing. It will become increasingly more elaborate and self-regulated as the children age and have more exposure to this routine.
I have 30 month olds in my care that can do this on their own with very little coaching from an adult. They are able to complete the cycle from beginning to end – even putting themselves in “time-out” until they are ready to start the apologizing process.
Now…getting adults to apologize – that’s a different story! If people would just stop screwing up, there’d be no need!