Imagine how you might feel if, after a loud and angry argument with your spouse, your child storms up to you and demands that you apologize to your partner for the mean things you said. I’m thinking you’d more likely tell her to mind her own business than comply. Most adults prefer a calming down period before deciding whether they are truly sorry. Few are also inclined to welcome being told what to do on the heels of an unpleasant exchange. Yes, there’s a difference between what a child demands of her parent versus what a parent asks of her child. But when it comes to what we expect of another human being – child or adult – it’s often helpful to reverse the situation and think about how you might feel if you were in your child’s shoes.
Besides, children learn more from our behaviour. So, if your children hear not just the disagreement but also the resolution and apology, they will learn to act likewise. However, if all they hear is the “I’m sorry” with no discussion around it, then they might learn that a simple apology mends all. Truth is that even though “sorry” softens the blow, this word may not be perceived as sincere – especially if it has been said many times. Instead, let your children hear why you are sorry. For example, when you say “I’m sorry I called you names. I was in a horrible mood and took it out on you. That wasn’t nice or fair,” your children (and your spouse, for example), are much more likely to believe and trust that you mean what you are saying.
So, the next time your child pulls his sister’s hair, it’s best not to jump in and demand that he apologize.
After all, even if you were to force the apology, what are the chances of your child feeling such remorse that he will not pull his sister’s hair again? What are the chances of his taking initiative to say sorry the next time it happens? I’d say pretty slim to none. Saying “I’m sorry” as a result of having been told to do so, is merely an act of compliance. It does not teach empathy or remorse or encourage positive behaviour.
So, what’s the alternative? Try this: lower your body so that you are eye to eye with your child and say something like, “Pulling hair hurts.” Then, wrap your arms around the child whose hair has been pulled and comfort that child. Once you have comforted the ‘victim,’ you may wait for your angry child to calm down before speaking to him. Then you can say something like, “You must have been frustrated or angry before you pulled your sister’s hair. What else could you have done to get what you needed?” You may also ask, “Did pulling your sister’s hair help you get what you needed?”
You can ask your child how he thinks his sister feels when he pulls her hair and whether he thinks that she is likely to give him what he needs or wants after behaving in that manner. If asked in a way that is helpful rather than condescending, the aggressor will likely better understand that he is more likely to get his needs met when he behaves in a positive manner than when he upsets or angers the person he is interacting with.
Helping your child understand the impact of his behaviour on others and feeling genuine remorse may take longer than demanding a hasty apology, but will likely result in better long-term behaviour and a more positive relationship between you and your child as well as between your child and others.
Tips Through the Ages
Empathy is not typically seen at this age so voluntary apologies are unlikely. However, preschoolers are capable of learning from the words and actions of adults around them.
As empathy develops, kids become more able to put themselves in other people’s shoes and understand how it feels to be treated a certain way. Again, modelling is key and school-aged children appreciate it when adults acknowledge their mistakes and apologize.
Tween & Teen
By now, kids usually know when they have done something wrong. If they aren’t apologizing,it’s for a reason. Perhaps they don’t want to admit to having acted badly or they aren’t ready to acknowledge their mistakes. Talk to your teens about how their behaviour affects others, and how their unwillingness to acknowledge their actions makes people feel, too.
Sara Dimerman is a psychologist, author and parenting expert in the Greater Toronto Area.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2014.