Say Sorry

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Force an apology?One of the hardest situations I face in my household is when one of my children hurts the other one, whether by accident or in play or out of anger. My knee-jerk reaction is to tell the offender to say sorry to her sister, just as my parents had me do when I was younger. My mom would tell me to say sorry and if I did it quickly to get it over with but didn’t really want to say it, she’d say, “Say it like you mean it.”

Now, I have to admit that I grew up knowing what it meant to say sorry. But I do realize that some people who were forced to apologize to their siblings grew up to use sorry as a quick fix for hurt feelings or as an afterthought. One man I know grew up being forced to say sorry when he and his siblings fought, but as an adult, he used apologies not because he was truly sorry but as a way to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings. In this way, he didn’t learn not to do the offending action again and would repeat it over and over, and getting frustrated because eventually people didn’t believe his so-called apologies.

There is a great debate among attached parents of whether or not to ask children to apologize when they hurt someone physically or emotionally. We want to teach our children empathy, and apologies are certainly a part of making restitution for a hurt but does forcing an apology hurt or help the development of empathy?

In my home, I choose not to force an apology but instead to encourage my children to comfort the hurt person on her own volition. I noticed that when I did ask for my three-year-old to apologize, she would do so but would quickly return to playing, without much regard for her sister’s crying. I re-evaluated what I wanted to teach her and readjusted my response during these situations.

Parents on both sides of the debate of saying sorry have great stories like mine to tell – of how their strategy works best for their family. Ultimately, that is what Attachment Parenting (AP) is supposed to be about – listening to your child, deciding what it is exactly you want to teach your child about the situation, and finding something that works best for your family. But, just what strategies regarding apologies are considered AP? Let’s take a look at what the experts have to say.

Attachment Parenting International Co-founders Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker in Attached at the Heart: “Apologies should come from the heart.”

Forcing a child to apologize may make the adult feel better but it doesn’t make the hurt child feel better and it doesn’t teach the offending child about an appropriate apology. Allow the child to apologize in his own way, even if it’s nonverbally. If your child is witnessing appropriate apologizing in her role models, she will begin to do so, too, when developmentally ready.

It’s important that children only apologize when they feel genuine remorse. The good news is, children raised in an attached way, which actively models and promotes the development of empathy, are more likely to begin feeling compassion early on and to spontaneously apologize on their own.

Canadian parent educator Judy Arnall in Discipline without Distress: “When the child needs to apologize to someone else: nudge, don’t force!”

Apologies need to come by the child’s own willpower and in the child’s own time. They almost never come when forced or in the emotional heat of the moment. Apologies are taught by modeling.

Parents want quick, forced apologies because of their own social embarrassment. If you’re dealing with a parent who expects a quick apology, explain your child’s feelings (“She’s so upset right now. We’ll deal with this later.”) or take the time to model what an appropriate apology looks like and apologize for your child on your own.

Massachusetts parent educator Alfie Kohn in Unconditional Parenting: “Compulsory apologies mostly train children to say things they don’t mean – that is, to lie.”

Parents must examine why they insist on their children apologizing – because they assume that by saying sorry, the child will magically feel remorse, or because they only care that their child has the manners to say sorry even if insincere? Parents who force apologies from their children are caring only about the behavior but not about the reason behind the behavior, and that reason is what will continue to fuel that child’s behavior as she grows.

University of Washington psychology professor John Gottman in Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: “From about age four, your child can understand the concept of ‘I’m sorry.’”

And the best way of teaching your child to apologize appropriately is by first modeling how to healthily handling feelings of regret and sorrow in your relationships, including in parent-child interactions.

To Force an Apology, or Not?

So what is API’s stance on asking your child to apologize?

  1. Be sure you’re modeling appropriate apologies in all your relationships.
  2. While you can encourage your child to apologize, it’s ultimately up to him. It’s more important to teach your child empathy and compassion – the reasons behind a healthy apology – than to hear the actual words, “I’m sorry.” It depends on your child’s development in being able to feel remorse and to handle this uncomfortable feeling.
  3. Realize that your child can apologize in ways besides saying sorry. A hug or kiss is just as much an apology as saying sorry.
  4. If your child isn’t going to apologize, and you really want him to, first think about your motivation, then take the moment to teach your child by modeling and appropriate apology on your own.

It can be difficult to practice AP and then see your child unwilling or unable to apologize to another person. We want our children to be empathic and compassionate, and we want to model to other people what AP looks like in our families. But, being an attached parent doesn’t mean that we never encounter hard situations like a child refusing to apologize – it means we are thinking about the deeper meaning of what we want to teach our children and finding ways to do that. Remember, the goal is to influence our children over time by getting to the emotional and cognitive roots of their actions, not to control their behavior now without regard for their willpower.

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