Apologizing has long been a subject of debate in our modern society. This is especially true in the parenting community. People act on what they know. There are two main perspectives within the modern parenting realm: 1) Apologies cannot be sincere from children, or 2) Practice makes perfect; apologize often.
Some parents are of the camp that apologies from a child cannot possibly be sincere, since children do not fully understand the morality of their actions. Thus, they cannot carry the weight of a sincere apology. They believe that children are only taught to speak with insincerity (Kohn ch 1).
Others believe that practice makes perfect. Over time children will understand the concepts of their words. Apologies validate children and decrease aggressive behaviors toward their perceived perpetrator. They also teach a child empathy and help a child learn to forgive. (Schumann 74). While there may be some room for debate with regards to making children apologize for their actions, this is one area in which a parent can be the example by apologizing appropriately.
We are fallible people and we don’t always get it right, no matter how many times we hit the ball out of the park with our parenting wins. We have a chance to model behavior for our children and connect with them on a deep interpersonal level when we share sincere apologies. Let’s review some ways that we deliver, model, and teach the nature and art of social grace through apologies.
Follow your instinct to apologize
Many times when we’ve messed up, we know it. Sometimes we are trying to help our child learn something, but cross a line from teacher to transgressor; we raise our voice too loud, punish the child in some way, or sometimes even simply just teach something inaccurate. We feel a little or a lot of guilt about our actions. Some of us might become fraught with indecision about what to do. Will apologizing for our behavior undermine what efforts we made during our prior lesson? Generally, it is understood through studying traumatic experiences that the transgressive behaviors themselves most likely undermine the lesson, whereas a well-crafted and well-timed apology has the power to restore the lesson as intended, among other benefits between the child and caregiver. As a result, the connection between caregivers and their kids grows stronger.
Apologize without expecting behavior modification
It’s probably happened. It was likely done to us. We likely will do it to our kids. You do something that your child responds to and their feelings are hurt. Perhaps they lash out or stop talking to you. Or perhaps they are crying… loudly. You apologize. Maybe you mean it. Maybe you just want the crying to stop or you just want your kid to be happy with you. Either way, using apologies as a form of behavior control is not the best way to guarantee those outcomes because children are too young to really process apologies and too impulsive to be able to process the emotions behind them. If you apologize, mean it. Don’t expect your child’s behavior to change.
Apologize without justifications
It seems common for our society to apologize, immediately followed by some set of words that either provide an excuse or a justification of the transgression. “I’m sorry I lost my cool and threw your toy in the trash, but… [I just really need you to pick up the toys][I was so angry you left the toy out again][I hurt myself by tripping on the toy][…].” Before you add the “but” after your apology, stop and think about why you are doing this. However, why add the “but”?
What message are you trying to send? Justifying will trump the apology and may not have the effect you want. Perhaps you are looking to have your child pick up his/her toys. The demand to do so, coming right after an apology, will cause the child to focus on the directive and not the apology. As a result, the child will focus on the punishment and the directive. This may not even cause the child to actually pick up his/her toys due to developmental processing it requires to remember to pick up after yourself as a child.
Leave it at that
Apologizing to your child and then demanding that they apologize back to you in return is yet another way that we negate the experience of the apology. This creates another circumstance in which we are apologizing to control the behavior of our children. Stop and connect with your child with a single simple apology. Address any additional concerns at a later time. They will learn to really mean their own apologies later and learn to connect on a deeper level with others as they do.
In conclusion, children learn at every moment of the day. They are little sponges that are soaking up every bit of information they can. Model positive behaviors. This is an excellent way for them to learn authenticity because it allows them to learn the rules and methods of apologizing; giving kids an experience of genuine apologies as well. This will enable them to fully express their sorrow for their actions in the future. This is how we set our children up for the most successful future possible. You will provide your kids with a holistic experience.
Kohn, Alfie. Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. Kindle ed., Atria Books, 2005.
Meier, A. J. “Apologies: What Do We Know?” International Journal of Applied Linguistics, vol. 8, no. 2, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Dec. 1998, pp. 215-31, doi:10.1111/j.1473-4192.1998.tb00130.x.
Schumann, Karina. “The Psychology of Offering an Apology: Understanding the Barriers to Apologizing and How to Overcome Them.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 27, no. 2, Apr. 2018, pp. 74-78, doi:10.1177/0963721417741709.
2 replies on “How to Apologize to Teach Kids About Being Authentic”
Great article Tabby. As my son grew I tried to model the same behavior I was trying to teach. I have sadly offended my son more times than I can count, but I learned that being authentic and owning my mistake, admitting my error and asking forgiveness has been one of the greatest teachers to us both.
Thank you for sharing your experience. I appreciate the care that went in to raising your son. I tend to try to be careful about asking for forgiveness, because I don’t want to teach them that they have to forgive and therefor let people off the hook for their actions, which is what a lot of people want when they are asking for forgiveness. I reinforce that I love them so much and I want to make sure my behavior is corrected if it doesn’t make them feel loved. But I tend to stay away from “Please forgive me.” This specific phrase is part of the infamous “Cycle of Abuse” whereas the abuser begs for forgiveness, the victim re-engages in a relationship, the perpetrator stays “nice” for a period of time and then start the cycle all over again.