Psychologist explains the possible consequences and alternatives to forcing apologies out of children.
Whenever children play, somebody inevitably gets hurt. When adults are present, interventions are often to force an apology out of the transgressor. Although adults may understand the meaning and value of apologizing, children may not.
The act of apologizing ought to reflect true feelings of remorse and personal responsibility. If it does not, the apology is empty. Young children are too cognitively under-developed to really understand what sorry means, beyond it being an act that follows a transgression.
Forcing a child who is not sorry to apologize is teaching that child what is socially expected regardless of how they feel and fails to deal with the real issue of teaching the child how and when to take personal responsibility.
If your goal as a parent or educator is to teach memorized socially appropriate responses to a transgression, forcing an apology accomplishes just that. If, however, your goal is to help children sort out social altercations and take appropriate responsibility for behavior, forcing an apology is not the most appropriate intervention.
Forcing a child to apologize can be humiliating, particularly if the child knows the whole truth. Often, by the time a transgression is brought to adults’ attention, a series of actions that are mutually offensive to the kids involved has occurred. The one to get caught may have been responding to an earlier transgression against them.
When a child is forced to apologize, it may placate the other child, educators or parents but it may not reflect how the apologizing child feels or thinks. In this case, the apologizing child is learning to say that they are sorry to placate the other offended parties and not because they genuinely feel, mean, or even understand it.
Such forced apologies can easily become a bad habit, especially if the transgression is forgiven and not further dealt. Kids will learn that social misbehaviour can be erased with an apology. In the mind of a child, this teaches them that they can transgress with impunity it if they master the art of apologizing. It is important to accept and reward a child’s apology (with kind words) but still gently discipline any behavior adults wish to deter.
If the goal is to teach children to be true to their feelings, perhaps the better alternative is to help them understand what happened. Guide them through what they did that was incorrect and how what they did made the other child feel. Show them the consequences of their action (that the other child is crying or sad) and check with them to see if they have sadness about that result. If they do, encourage them to express it (in an apology) as a way to help the hurt child feel better.
Children typically do not want to hurt anyone else. They use inappropriate actions for different reasons but often they represent impulsive immature coping responses. When it is demonstrated that their actions have hurt someone, and they are emotionally and intellectually ready to comprehend this, they are often capable of expressing remorse and apologize on their own.
If the child is showing regret or sadness and understands that someone else was hurt, but is unable to generate an apology on their own, adults can guide them to through this by asking them if they think they might want to apologize since they do feel bad. Great if they do. But if they do not, perhaps they are not ready. Either way, move on and remember to discipline any unacceptable social behavior.
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