The other day my toddler wasn’t in the best of moods. It was one of those, “Let me complain about the littlest things” kind of days. He and his dad were rough housing when LO hit his dad with a plastic toy. Right away the air changed from giddiness to tension, and LO was in no mood to be schooled.
Still, I knelt down to my toddler’s eye level and sternly said, “We don’t hit other people.” Okay, so far so good. “Daddy got really sad and hurt when you hit him,” I continued. Then I told him, “Say ‘I’m sorry’.”
“I’m sorry,” my toddler replied in between tears. I doubt he even knew what ‘sorry’ was, because clearly he wasn’t—a few minutes later he runs after his dad and smacks him again with his hand. Insert a few more parenting mishaps here and a tad more toddler crying there, and you get the idea of how the rest of the evening went.
When the day finally ended, my husband and I talked about what happened and what we could have done instead. We agreed that forcing him to say “I’m sorry” may not have been the best tactic. Yet that phrase is often forced on many kids and even touted as good manners. After all, when you hurt someone, you express your grief at having done so by saying sorry.
Except saying sorry only works when you mean it. And when you know what it even means.
Teaching manners is often a reason why parents want their kids to say sorry. I’m trying to raise a polite boy; the kind who respects others, asks for things politely, and yes, apologizes when he does wrong. I also probably felt compelled to tell my toddler to say sorry because of the weight of his crime. Playing with the blinds or flinging food on the floor don’t warrant stern discipline; hitting does. In my need to match the wrongdoing with the appropriate consequence, I pulled out the “Say you’re sorry” card.
But just as kids shouldn’t be forced to share, I realize that neither should they be forced to say sorry. A true apology lies in the child’s own initiative, or at the least, his understanding of the hurt the other person might feel. Telling kids to say sorry before they feel remorseful makes them say things that aren’t the truth for them, forcing them to admit a feeling they don’t agree with or comprehend.
Telling to kids to say sorry might also make them feel ashamed and confused about their feelings. Already ridden with guilt, or at least an awareness that they did something wrong, kids may feel like they’ve lost a bit of support when forced to apologize.
And forcing an apology slaps an immediate resolution to the conflict without delving further into why he got frustrated in the first place, or what he could have done instead. The more he’s able to identify what triggers him to misbehave (was he upset? feeling ignored? tired?), the more he can find other alternatives to hitting (e.g. saying “I’m mad!”).
While kids shouldn’t always be forced to say sorry, they shouldn’t be let off the hook, either. I definitely needed to lay down the rules, but I should have waited until he calmed down before even talking about or trying to resolve the incident. Forget about trying to say anything logical to kids while they’re crying or hysterical—they won’t learn anything and they’re probably not even listening. Once he calmed down, I could try to talk about why he misbehaved: “You seemed upset when you hit your dad…” It’s that empathy again. Since my kid is only two-years-old, this will be a lot of filling in and guessing most of the time, but even doing this exercise will provide the vocabulary he’ll need for when he can be more verbal about his feelings.
Next, I could talk about what he can do instead. Again, since he’s on the younger side, I can help him fill in the blank: “Maybe when you’re upset, you can say ‘I’m mad’.” And finally, I could help him come up with a solution on how to make it up to the other person: “What can you do to make Daddy feel better? What if you gave him a hug, or told him you’re sorry?” At this point, after he’s calmed down and has realized he hurt someone, can we then encourage him to say I’m sorry.
This is still something I’m working on—just a few days ago I caught myself telling him to say sorry again right away without really trying to figure out the underlying issue. And there are times when telling your kids to say sorry is appropriate; if he accidentally steps on someone’s toes or does anything unintentionally, he should say “I’m sorry,” just as we say “excuse me” if we bumped into someone or “please” when we ask for something. But for more intentional acts, forcing kids to say sorry when they’re not ready may only make them feel isolated and ashamed, doesn’t provide an opportunity to learn other alternatives to express frustration, and denies kids the chance to express remorse all on their own.
How do you handle apologies when your kid has done something wrong? Do you find that forcing apologies has helped or hindered the situation?
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