Should Parents make their Kids Say “I’m Sorry”?

written by: Laurie Lafortune

Let’s look at the goals behind having your child say “I’m sorry”. An apology is not meant to be an excuse, or to get someone off the hook. The goal behind an apology is to repair relationships, accept responsibility and make a commitment to not do that again. Without that understanding, the word sorry has little meaning.  It’s not the saying of the words that matter, but the meaning behind them.

Most parents can get their child to obey the command to “Say You’re Sorry!” through removal of privileges, or other consequences, but there no meaning  in those words being spoken if the child is only saying it so the parent will stop nagging, or to avoid unpleasant consequences.  Forcing children to make an apology might make a child more angry and resentful.  Some children say the words, because of fear of punishment and might not even realize that they did something wrong.

Older children who haven’t understood the meaning of a true apology, can be heard saying in an outraged tone, “I said I’m sorry,” as if that makes everything okay again and their previous behaviour is justified.  They believe that “I’m sorry” is like a magic phrase that allow them to do whatever they want, as long as they quickly say the phrase afterward. Other children will refuse to apologize for accidental actions, because they mistakenly believe that apologies are only if they did something on purpose. They may refuse to say “I’m sorry”, using the justification, “it was an accident!” or “I didn’t mean to!”  So how can parents help children learn about apologizing?

Learning how to apologize can start when your child is very young. We’ve all seen a toddler grab a toy they want from another child. Their thoughts seem to be:  I like that, I want that, I don’t have it, how can I get it? I’ll grab it.  This is totally normal and unsurprising at this age (It actually is basic problem-solving) Thoughts of fairness, sharing, and ownership don’t enter the toddler’s mind-those concepts need to be learned and practiced and develop with maturity and guidance.   In that situation, a well-meaning parent might take the toy back, return it to the first child, and insist that the toddler say Sorry. But without any other actions or words, the toddler will not learn from this experience.  Sorry is meaningless if the child doesn’t know what it was they did that was wrong or hurtful. In this situation, a parent could say something like, “Jack, Look at Emma. She’s upset because she was using that toy that you took”. The parent can then give the toy back to Emma, and say, “Jack, you can have a turn later”. Model the apology by saying “We are sorry that Jack grabbed that from you. He forgot to ask if he could have a turn.”

Model how to apologize as situations arise; your children will notice. And when required, apologize to your kids. Apologizing to a child is not giving up parental authority, or giving in; it is treating a child with the respect that you would give any other person. An example might be, “I’m sorry that I wasn’t listening when you were trying to talk to me. That wasn’t respectful. I was distracted. I would like to listen to you now, and I really want to hear what you have to say.”  This apology accepts responsibility, tries to repair the relationship, and makes a commitment to do the right thing going forward. It also shows that parents aren’t perfect, but shows a commitment to do the best you can. Older children will understand what respectful means, and younger ones may need simpler words,.

Sometimes young children don’t see the need for an apology for something that they didn’t mean to do. Examples would be spilling food, or breaking a toy. Coach your child to make an apology something like this: “I’m sorry I spilled the juice. It was an accident. I’ll clean it up.” Again, modelling what to do in this situation is the way to help your children learn this. Be sure to apologize to your children and other family members if you bump into them or for accidental or unintentional mistakes.

So, like all social skills, learning to make a sincere apology is a social skill and will improve with practice and maturity.  Having your kids say the words, “I’m sorry,” is just one part of the process.