While growing up with three siblings, forcing me to apologize had no real value. At that time, I had no research to support my negative feelings about forced apologies; I just knew that forcing me to apologize sometimes resulted in me getting angrier or made me feel that I had lied because I may not have been sorry for hitting my brother. In addition, I sometimes felt that if I just apologized, even if it was a meaningless “sorry,” it erased my wrongdoing.
Why do parents and teachers feel it is necessary for a child to apologize? Some adults feel that apologizing, even if insincere, will help youth begin to develop manners and social skills. Others feel that an apology tells the world that apologizing is important and that it teaches youth to accept responsibility for their actions.
These reasons just don’t make sense to me. An apology should mean that one expresses remorse; in other words, you regret what you have done or said. A child may know that he should not punch his brother, but this does not mean that he regrets doing so. He may even feel that his brother deserved the punch.
Try rethinking the reasons you want your child to apologize. Is it to make you look better; is it to help teach your child to take responsibility for his/her actions; or is it to help your child build empathy for others? If it is a sincere apology, empathy and accepting responsibility are emerging.
I am not endorsing that a person should not be punished when an aggressive act or another wrongdoing has occurred. Aggressive behavior, whether verbal or physical, should result in a negative consequence. However, after the punishment and the child/teen is calm, help your son or daughter work through the feelings. The ultimate goal is that there is a sincere apology. Even better is when the apology is his idea – even if you orchestrated the apology, without force.
What are alternatives to forcing an apology? As part of teaching others to take responsibility for their actions, making amends for their actions is important. This process helps to rebuild trust with the victim. Below are steps in the process of teaching the art of apologizing:
- Avoid power struggles and placing yourself in a “no-win” dilemma. Avoid comments such as, “We are not leaving this playground until you apologize to your brother!” Where will this get you if your child never apologizes? You will probably be on the playground all evening.
- Weekly Family Meetings are an excellent approach to teach ways of resolving conflict in the home. If there is a conflict that was not resolved through the usual means, the youth can jot this concern on the family meeting agenda. Then, the entire family can help resolve the conflict. Sometimes, just knowing that this is an option will help to reduce arguments in the home.
- Another powerful way to teach the art of apologizing is to model an apology. Avoid adding a reason, “I’m sorry I yelled at you, but I am under a lot of pressure at work.” Just admit you were wrong. The “but” at the end of the apology negates the apology. However, if you overdo apologies and never make a change in your actions, your son or daughter is not learning the art of apologizing.
- Use children’s literature to teach lessons for putting action into an apology. In Zach Apologizes by Mulcahy, a four-step process is used to teach the art of apologizing (go to four-square apologyto get a free form to use).
- Step One: What I did to hurt somebody;
- Step Two: How the person felt;
- Step Three: What I can do next time;
- Step Four: How I’ll make it up to the person.
As stated, no one questions the need to teach children to apologize; however, forced apologies have little positive effect. Forcing someone to apologize may teach a memorized response and make “you” feel better, but it doesn’t teach a person to accept responsibilities for his/her actions or to begin to understand another’s feelings. It isn’t easy teaching children to apologize with sincerity and empathy, but these approaches may assist you along the way.