I’m sure you have watched a child apologise without meaning it on many occasions. “Sorry”, they mumble, fidgeting and looking anywhere but at the person to whom they’re apologising. Then – they get out of there as quickly as they can!
Likely leaving behind the well-meaning adult who had insisted they apologise. I have been that well-meaning adult, embarrassed both by my child’s misdeed and the inadequacy of their apology. Then, at some point, I realised that I had been insisting that my son apologise because I thought it would reflect badly on me and my parenting if I didn’t. My ego had clouded my judgement and I wasn’t actually teaching him what an apology really is.
WHAT IS AN APOLOGY?
So often, making an apology becomes a punishment we dish out to our children. At times, there is even an element of humiliation to it which we think will ‘teach’ them. But, if children learn to equate apologising with fear, they’re going to become reluctant apologisers, unable to offer to others and experience for themselves, release from the situations they have created.
A true apology comes from love – sincere regret for our unloving behaviour. It is also a recognition of worth – both the worth of the apologiser and the recipient. When we make a real apology, we know the other person was worthy of better treatment and that we are worthy of forgiveness.
WHAT MISTAKES ARE WE MAKING AS PARENTS?
When our children make empty, embarrassed apologies, it is because they are not ready to apologise. So often, adults expect children to make an almost instant apology, before the child has had time to process the emotions they are feeling. When something difficult has gone down between two people, resulting in an injury or insult, both parties may have big emotions to deal with. The child who has done ‘wrong’ needs time to allow the emotions to pass before they can sincerely apologise. They’re most likely dealing with remorse in tandem with the anger or hurt that made them lash out in some way. And the other person may also need time before they are able to receive an apology. (See my post Helping Children to Manage Difficult Emotions)
The child who is needing to apologise may need some physical space away from the situation while their emotions settle. They also need our support. Too often, we withdraw our support in a show of disapproval but a cuddle or gentle words show that our love for our child and their worthiness are unconditional. In doing this, we remind them that their behaviour is separate from who they are and we empower the love in them. Once the strength of emotion has dissipated and they are reassured of their worth, the child will be ready to address what has happened and make an effort to put things right. This may take only 30 seconds or it may take a lot longer. When we can see that they’re ready, we might suggest an apology by asking, “What do you want to do about it now…?” and discussing with them what they will do. If they want us to accompany them while they apologise, I see no issue with doing so as long as the words come from their mouths.
Sometimes, a child refuses to apologise if forced to do so before they are ready. I have seen parents apologise instead of their children (I have done this myself). But it is their apology to make, not ours. If we do it for them, they have lost their opportunity to learn how to weather their emotions and reach a point at which they’re ready to apologise. An alternative to apologising instead of our child is to enquire after the hurt party and show our concern for them. While we are doing this, the attention is off our own child and they are getting a moment to themselves to calm down.
TEACHING CHILDREN HOW TO APOLOGISE
Apologise ourselves, especially to our children – Children are worthy of receiving apologies just as adults are (see A CHILD’S WORTH). When we apologise to them, we show them how it’s done and communicate their worthiness. I usually know I will apologise immediately in the situation but I only do it when I’m ready. Sometimes, I explain my process to my eldest. For example, “I was feeling very angry so I went to my room to calm down until I was ready to say ‘sorry’”. A cuddle and a kiss put a nice fullstop on the situation.
Accept their apologies gracefully – A simple “thank you” is all that is needed. Leave it there. There is no need to follow-up with a lecture on why they shouldn’t have done what they did or a stern warning not to do it again. They know! If we respond with our ego, determined to “teach them a lesson”, they may come to dread apologising for the likely telling-off they’ll receive. That doesn’t set them up to become generous apologisers as adults.
Teach the 3 elements of a good apology – These are eye-contact, using the person’s name and saying specifically what they’re sorry for. At the dinner table a few nights ago, Jake apologised to my husband for something he had said and did all of these 3 things of his own accord. I could see his sincerity and it went straight to my heart
For young children, with limited language and self-managing skills, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to insist they say ‘sorry’. They would simply be parroting us, doing what we expected of them, which is rather meaningless. What we can do is grow their awareness of the impact of their actions on others. Yesterday, Thomas (2 years old) was playing at a water table with his little friend. They were having a great time together until Thomas started hoarding all the equipment. Too busy chatting, I hadn’t noticed. Soon, the other child was crying because he had nothing left to play with. In simple language, I showed Thomas that his friend was crying because he hadn’t been sharing the water toys. My hope is that, when he’s older, Thomas’ apologies will be sincere – words that come from his love and empathy for others. Compassion is our starting point. He will learn about apologising by watching the older people in his life and receiving apologies himself.
IN SUMMARY: APOLOGISE WITH LOVE
My verdict is that we should teach our children how to truly apologise but not make them do it. There is a lot of power in an apology. I don’t entirely agree with the phrase “Forgiven but not forgotten”. If someone sincerely apologises and the receiver sincerely forgives, it is forgotten in the sense that both people put it down, they don’t continue to carry the pain of what happened around with them. Infact, sometimes an apology even brings us closer. We know someone sees our value when they offer us a heart-felt apology or generously accept our own apology. That can strengthen our connection with them. And, in my experience, an apology is relatively easy to offer when it comes from love rather than fear. As the nurturer in our children’s lives, it is our own approach to apologising that shows our children how to say ‘sorry’ with love.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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