Since When Are We Not Supposed to Teach Our Kids to Say “I’m Sorry”?

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

Recently I shared, what I thought at the time, was a funny little anecdote on Facebook about my son refusing to say sorry to his sister.

“I can’t say sorry, Mom,” he explained to me. “I can’t say sorry, because my mouth is not sorry.”

And although his 3-year-old reasoning still makes me chuckle, I was surprised when a few friends pointed out that prompting a child to apologize when he or she is not actually sorry is not the best parenting strategy.

I have to admit, I was taken aback by the thought that teaching a child to apologize could possibly go awry. In our house, when my kids do something wrong, whether it be a sibling squabble or being sassy to me or their dad, an apology is expected.

Just when I thought I had a handle on this parenting thing, with the limiting screen time and cutting out gluten and balancing their play time with their scheduled time, here’s yet another thing I have to rethink. You’re now telling me that I can’t even make my own kid apologize when he does something wrong?

Sigh. Parenting, guys. It’s not for the weak.

But because I am willing to admit when I’m wrong (is it because my parents taught me to say “sorry”? Hmm … ) I turned to a few experts to get their thoughts on whether teaching kids to apologize can be harmful — and what we can do instead as parents.

Aida Vazin, 33, a licensed marriage and family therapist, warns of all the negative effects that could occur when forcing a kid to say “sorry.”

A short overview for those of you ready to see it includes:

  • Cognitive dissonance sets in, causing the child to question himself or herself and starts removing the child from their truth or authenticity.
  • It may cause the child to perform more actions that would require an apology in order to get more attention (called negative attention behavior).
  • The child may become passive aggressive and go ahead and do what he or she wants to do in order to feel in control or simply because the child does not feel that what he or she did was wrong.
  • Finally, if the child does not feel apologetic and is told to apologize, that is the child clearly learning to lie.

Child psychologist and Director of Montefiore’s Integrated Pediatric Behavioral Health Program in New York Rahil Briggs, PsyD, also adds that forcing an apology may teach the child to see saying “sorry” as a “get out of jail free” card, without necessarily prompting a behavioral change. “It can also be felt as very disingenuous by the recipient,” she says.

OK, great. I stand corrected. Apologizing is not always the way to go. So what should we be doing instead?

Teaching a child to be accountable and to take responsibility for their actions, especially those that are deemed wrong or hurtful to others, is important, Vazin says.

However, instead of focusing on the apology as the cure-all for righting a wrong, we should be focusing our attentions on why what he or she did was wrong — and most importantly, how to avoid the same behavior in the future.

After all, the whole point is to get the child to change his or her behavior because it’s undesirable, right? So it makes more sense that we focus on why that behavior needs to change and why that certain behavior may have harmed another person instead of putting emphasis on the apology.

Although Vazin notes that this can vary based on the age and conceptual capacity of the child, she says that in general, by primary school age, a child has concrete thinking and can understand the concept of why a behavior may be wrong.

Additionally, by ages 3-4, she says that many children have a “Theory of Mind” in place, which allows them to understand that others have a different perspective than their own, which could be helpful in teaching kids how their actions may affect another.

Dr. Oksana Hagerty, an educational and development psychologist and learning specialist at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, also explains that before the age of 5, children simply don’t have the brain capacity to understand how an apology can help the hurt victim.

So forcing an apology before the age of 5 probably just isn’t going to do much good. Instead, Dr. Hagerty recommends focusing on how the victim feels and talking about the behavior that caused the hurt.

If you’re wondering what on earth this looks like in practical terms, like when your 3-year-old smacks his little sister on the arm for taking his toy (cough, hypothetical example, cough), Briggs suggests pointing out how the action hurt the younger sibling and asking the offender how he might remedy the situation.

You may have to model an appropriate response for a stubborn and sulky preschooler, but still, working to guide them towards seeing why their action was wrong instead of prompting an automatic “sorry” and moving on, might be more useful in the long run.

I have to admit that all of this makes sense, although I’m still feeling a little conflicted, because I don’t think apologizing is always a bad thing if it assists the child in seeing what he or she did was wrong. However, I will be rethinking my approach in the future.

And I love how Vazin points out that for older children, skipping the apology and going straight to the source behind the negative action may be a surprisingly simple and effective way to learn what is really prompting their behavior.

I’m thinking of a certain 8-year-old I have who has shocked me with some sassy behaviors and frankly, the apology route has not changed anything. So next time, I’m going to take Vazin’s advice and do more prompting to figure out what’s behind her behavior.

“It could just be as simple as asking with an open mind and curiosity,” she says. “This may be a great way to get to know your child better and to help your child navigate better in the social world.”

What do you think? Do you make your kids apologize when they’ve done something wrong?  

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