I am sorry… But not really?
As parents and educators, we try to teach children about the impact their actions have on different people. If a child has taken a toy from someone’s hand without asking or got frustrated and hit someone, we expect them to “fix it” and say sorry.
What lays behind the words “I am sorry”? What is the intent? Are we trying to teach them a social skill, to teach them about cause-effect, taking responsibility for their actions, or empathy?
These are only a few of the questions we should pose before asking a child to use these words.
Feeling sorry does not equal the act of apologizing
When we insist on children apologizing, we have to keep in mind that the behavior does not equal an internalized feeling. There are ways in which we can support children to name the feeling they had before they acted out in a certain way. After they apologize, they can be encouraged to think of ways in which they can help the person to feel better or help themselves make a more constructive choice in the future.
Sometimes children will just “Say the words” to satisfy OUR expectations, avoid long talks and often just to go back and play. A strategy we can use containing the elements that will gradually lead to awareness is: “I am sorry for grabbing the car without asking and that this made you/the other feel sad. I was also upset as you did not want to share. Next time/in the future I will ask in how many minutes I can play with it for as well.”
The children will learn to connect their action with the feeling that leads to it, the choice they made, the impact it had, and alternatives in the future. We should adjust these phrases according to their age and level of knowledge and understanding. We can also support children who are still learning how to make amends by giving choices: “What can we do to help X feel better? Should we make a card or offer a hug?”
What have I done wrong?
How many times in our childhood did we hear expressions such as: “You should be ashamed! Apologize now!”? How many times do we ask questions such as: “Where did you see that? Who taught you that?” when trying to find the reasons behind the children’s behaviors? Although the intention is to find the root of the problem, the impact it may have on the child is that he/she does not understand or cannot explain why their choice was not appropriate. If your child calls someone “stupid”, explain that choice of words does not help to describe how we feel about others.
At an early age, they express anger by hitting, biting, throwing, or kicking. When they are a little older, and their language is more developed, they move on to the next stage: expressing anger through words. Maybe not always the right words! Children use bad words to express “negative” feelings in response to frustrating situations. Try to address the feeling beneath the choice of words!
Why do I need to say sorry?
A 3-year-old is still in the “all about me” phase, therefore he/she is not able to grasp what being wrong means, he is just directed by what others tell him/ her. For example, “hitting is wrong” only because I am not allowed to watch cartoons. Keep your explanations simple and draw attention to how the other may feel:
” I saw that you took the book from Petra’s hand and that she started to cry. Do you think she is hurt? Shall we check?”
Sometimes children do not want to “say sorry” because they feel ashamed. Help them mediate the situation, approach your child and the other involved and encourage them to “listen” and express how they felt. Ask the other child what your child can do to make him/her feel better. You may be surprised to find out that the other child may come with the solution and say “make a card, give me a balloon”. This way your child may learn that there are other ways in which they can solve a situation.
Give the child specific examples of ways in which they can make amends; for example, they need to share a toy, make a card. Listen calmly and try to find their side of the story “I would like to find out what happened”.
What is it that you really want?
Do you want to get out of an awkward situation in which your child just pulled a toy from someone’s hand or do you want your child to acknowledge how their actions impacted others? Always pause and give yourself the time to think about intent!
What we want instead is to make our expectations clear and reinforce rules in a positive manner. How is your child feeling about the situation? Help them understand how the others involved may feel.
“What else can we do next time when someone has taken a toy? In this house, we use kind words such as clever and kind. Hands are for helping others or hugging them (demonstrate this when your child hits for example)”
Don’t label the child, name the desired behaviors
We don’t want to install in children the feeling of shame: “Only bad children do this!”, “I thought you knew better!”. The act itself and behavior do not define the child and what kind of values he/she will grow to have.
We often hear parents saying, “I want him to be a good person!”. What does being good look like? Yes, we can express how we feel about their actions while emphasizing that they are still loved and cared for: “I felt sad when you shouted at me and threw the cup of milk. I wish you had shown me you were not ready to drink your milk in a calm voice while keeping the cup safe. Can you take the cup off the floor and show me how you can use other words? Do you think your hands are ready to listen to you and put the cup away gently?
Replace “you should feel sorry” with “thank you”! When you witness your child displaying the desired behavior, acknowledge it by saying “Thank you for putting the book back on the shelf!
How do we know if the child has empathy? When children are aware of their actions, we often see that in them. We cannot teach children to feel sorry. What we can do is to inspire values, healthy norms, and limits that will help them develop empathy and care for others.
How many times have you noticed that although children fight, after 5 minutes they have their smiles back on and are playing together again? Children rarely hold a grudge and sometimes their kindness towards each other is enough. We should not conclude that they don’t have feelings but that they do not hold negative feelings for too long.
What matters most is the teachable moments we create. The best way in which we can do this is by modeling this for them. We should ask ourselves: “When was the last time I said sorry? Did I look into his/ her eyes, sat at his/her level, and truly mean it?”
We should keep in our minds and hearts this final thought: children are in the process of becoming. Becoming aware of their actions, becoming aware of their feelings, becoming aware of others. The meaning behind the words “sorry” and “feeling sorry” is a learning process that is growing and changing.
It does take time and children are Growing Better Every Day