Parenting can be a humbling and embarrassing experience, especially when we find ourselves at the mercy of our children’s guilelessness. Young children say and do what they feel. While this instinct is endearing, even admirable, it can also be a bit awkward in the moment when, for example, our daughter spots a topless man in the market and shouts, “He’s so hairy!” (Been there.)
The most dreaded embarrassment parents face is when their child, purposely or accidentally, hurts another child. Naturally, we are mortified, and our children pick up on our intense dismay before they even have the chance to feel their own response. Then we become desperate for our child to say, “I’m sorry.” We rely on those two words to resolve the situation and help us save face with the other parent.
But our child is bewildered. How did moving that boy out of the way make him fall?
Children do not instantly absorb a situation or respond automatically as adults do. They take a little longer to digest an experience and process it. A child might be just beginning to put together what has happened, when suddenly she is enveloped in enormous pressure emanating from her mom or dad. “Tell the boy you’re sorry,” they say in a tone that makes the girl most uncomfortable. She wants to please, but forcing the words would feel completely false, and faking emotion does not come naturally to a child.
Over the years I have heard many of these forced apologies. I understand the parent’s need for them, but I have to admit they always make me squirm. To truly apologize requires empathy, and empathy develops in its own way and time, at a different pace for each child. So, often the child is not developmentally ready to understand, much less own the words she’s saying.
What worries me most is the child who, because his caregiver has pushed him to always say ‘sorry,’ receives the message that apologizing fixes everything. He punches another child, but as long as he says, “I’m sorry,“ he’s excused and can move on, or even do it again. We are wrong to believe we teach empathy by forcing an insincere apology.
So, what do we do when our child hurts someone?
If a child has a tendency to act out with other children when he is tired or frustrated, it’s best to be close by to intervene before another child is hurt. We might say firmly, “I won’t let you hit,“ then create a physical boundary between the children with our hand. Or we may have to restrain our child to stop him. If we are too late and a child is hurt, we should apologize profusely to the injured child and his parents and then probably remove our child immediately from the situation – it’s time to go home. Generally, when young children deliberately act aggressively, they are signaling that they feel ‘out of control’ and need intervention. They cannot be expected to turn on a dime, compose themselves and express regret.
If our child is old enough to understand apologies and hurts another by accident, it is still best not to direct the child to respond. Better to acknowledge the situation, wait, and then model the behavior we want our child to emulate, as the mother did in this example from my Comments section:
…I went to the little boy, and his mom said he just had stitches removed where he got kicked. I said to him, “Ouch, I’m sorry that Hope dropped her shoe on your scar. I can understand that is a super sensitive spot. ” Meanwhile, he is showing me the spot and I say that “I see it”. My daughter dries her tears and walks over to him and finally says her honest, quiet and beautiful “I’m sorry”.
In some instances, there are better ways to make amends than apologizing, and when trusted to respond naturally, children will come up with these sincere gestures on their own. The boy who pats his opponent on the back when they collide on the soccer field, the toddler who offers a toy to a crying child, and the daughter who reaches for a towel to wipe up the spilled juice are all acting out of authentic empathy.
If we want our child to express an honest apology, we must be patient and not push. ‘Hi’, ‘goodbye’, ‘share!’ and ‘thank you’ are all loaded words for toddlers when parents demand them, but ‘I’m sorry’ takes the cake when it comes to parental expectations. Since our goal is for our child to make amends for his misdeeds because he genuinely regrets them, we must trust him to find the words in time.
We are powerful examples for our children of all that is human. We teach “I’m sorry” best by modeling it. Children need to hear us apologize to others, and also to them. They need to know that human beings are not perfect. When we say to our child, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” we give the child permission to make mistakes too.
While we are modeling apologies, our children will teach us again and again about forgiveness. Implicitly understanding the errors of their peers, children usually forgive immediately and return to playing together. We must grant our children that same compassion. By trusting our children to develop authentic social responses, we give them the self-confidence to be the sensitive and deeply caring human beings we hope they will become.
“Respect the child. Be not too much his parent, but also his pupil…” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
For more about children and social learning, please check out my books:
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.
I’ve also recorded a podcast on this topic: Helping Your Child Say “I’m Sorry”
(Photo by Bridget Colla on Flickr)