To Be or Not To Be: The Apology

Written by Trena Hudson, M.A.
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Once upon a time, not so long ago, there were a group of children playing at a … let’s just say, a park. They were playing very nicely when child A decides that child B is too close for comfort and kind of nudges child B just enough for the unsuspecting child B to fall to the ground. All of the parents saw it happen. The first instinct of the parent of child A is to make the child apologize, and the other parents quietly and impulsively agree. But what is this teaching the children? What is child B and child A taking away from this experience, and what are all of the children learning from this experience?

This type of scenario happens often when in a group setting, some may even say that it is inevitable. When you put a group of people together, regardless of age I might add, there are bound to be moments where unwanted behavior occurs. Does a quick “I’m Sorry” suffice?

I know for me, I have been at the receiving end of a seemingly inauthentic and insincere apology and I remember thinking to myself, “I think I would have been better off without that fake apology.” Which leads to yet another question, what is the purpose/intent of an apology?

Defining “Apology” for Us and Our Children

I am going to step out on a limb and provide my own definition of an apology, in terms of being relationship-based, as taking responsibility for a hurtful act, rather intentional or otherwise.  An apology is taking responsibility in a way that lets others know that you are aware of what has taken place and that moving forward, every effort will be made to improve so that such acts do not occur again.

As parents and early educators, how can we make or even force children to apologize when they may not understand how they have hurt others? If they don’t understand how they have hurt another person, how can they hope to improve for the future? How is nudging Child B different from nudging the refrigerator door closed? And does Child A understand that? Are children even capable of knowing the difference between apologizing for their behavior or apologizing because their behavior hurt someone? By forcing children to apologize when they don’t understand, is that a form a lying? I mean really, in a sense, are we asking children to lie by saying sorry, rather they understand or not, for something that they are not actually sorry for?

I believe that apologies are tools and with any tool, there is an appropriate way to use it. If used correctly, apologies can mend relationships, build relationships and maintain relationships; apologies are more than mere words. When saying “I’m sorry” comes from the heart, it’s a way of letting someone know that you respect and care about them.  It shows that you have empathy and empathy is what we really want to teach our young children. When apologies are done incorrectly, it can do more harm than good.

Apologies are by no means a “fix all”. In some instances, just saying “I’m sorry” may not be enough. When this happens, it’s important to remember the intent behind the apology.  If the apology is intended to right a wrong, then additional action may be necessary. If a push resulted in a skinned knee for example, then going to get an ice pack and a Band-Aid may also be in order, along with a hug.

Four Ways to Help Children Learn Empathy

The four most important things that we as parents and early educators can do to help children learn empathy is:

  • Don’t force children to say “I’m sorry”- For all of the reasons that I mentioned above. Children may or may not understand how they have wronged someone, how an apology may help, how to correct their behavior or why saying something that you don’t mean is wrong.
  • Brainstorm with children, different ways that we can make a person “feel” better. By brainstorming with children, we put the power in their hands. We are letting them know that they have control of their world. We are not giving them the answers, but trusting and aiding them in finding one that best suits them and the situation. Saying “I’m sorry” may be one of the items that come up when brainstorming, but remember it needs to be the child’s choice and to remedy the situation, more than an apology might be necessary.
  • Model the behavior that we expect from our little ones – It’s important to not be hypocrites when modeling behavior for children. The saying “Do as I say, not as I do” does not fare well with growing children, especially teenagers. As adults, we need to set the stage early on and show children how to be empathic, friendly, and global citizens. When they practice empathy as children, they grow into adults that practice empathy.
  • Reinforce empathic behavior- Whenever you see a child exhibit behaviors such as sharing, helping complete a task with someone else, comforting a friend or taking turns, always acknowledge EXACTLY what you saw that you liked. For example, “Johnny, I like the way that you gave Suzy one of your cars to play with. That was a very friendly thing to do. You should be very proud of yourself for sharing.”

As I close this post, I urge everyone reading this to reflect on times when you have gotten a lack-luster “I’m Sorry”. How did it make you feel? By forcing children to apologize, we are conditioning them to deliver those lack-luster apologies. We owe it to them to show them a better way and by modeling empathic behavior we are subsequently being the change that we want to see in the world–the world of our children.

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