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What Parents Need To Know About Forcing Kids To Say Sorry

flickr / Steve Corey

If your kid goes and does something wrong — like punches another kid in the head, or calls you fascist in the middle of snack time — naturally you’d direct them to apologize. And, on a good day, they offer an apology. But whether or not they mean it is questionable. Some kids are too young to realize why they’ve hurt someone’s feelings, and can’t grasp what “I’m sorry” means. So what then? Should you make them apologize? Or does forcing their hand (or mouth) not teach them the true meaning of forgiveness?

“Sometimes kids do it just because they’re following an instruction and trying to get out of whatever just happened,” says Jamie Perillo, child psychologist and founder of Inspired Families. “But having them apologize is helpful to understanding forgiveness.” (Any probably also to get other parents off your back.)

Much like your uncle’s mustache preference, kids’ understanding of forgiveness is an evolving thing. With that in mind, here’s how to better understand what’s going on in your kid’s little head, and how to get them to the point where they’re not just saying sorry but meaning it, too.

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Apologizing Eases A Kids Inner Turmoil

First off, the obvious: If a kid feels bad about crumpling up a friend’s coloring page, pinching a sibling, or flicking the dog, offering an apology eases their inner turmoil. They can be little monsters in the moment, but really most kids are shy, confused, and still working on the maturity thing. When the going gets tough, a parent’s push for an apology can give them the courage they require. The dog might need some time, however.

Saying Sorry Sets A Boundary And An Example

Kids aren’t the only ones who say and do things they don’t mean. Parents (not you … other ones) do, too. You’re around tiny little sponges that constantly absorb your behavior. Seeing and hearing you offer and/or accept apologies helps them learn to do it themselves. “Apologizing helps set a boundary and show that something was not okay,” says Perillo. “If a parent says or does something hurtful and apologizes, they model for kids how to do it.” Time to bust out your “amends” list.

Pull Them Aside

When it comes time to make your kid apologize, demanding they issue an one in front of a group of peers is not the way to go, especially if the offender isn’t sure what they did wrong.

“Saying sorry can invoke a feeling of shame, and that’s not helpful,” says Perillo. This doesn’t matter whether they’re apologizing to a child or an adult — pull them aside for the interaction. In that side convo, you can explain that, say, dumping a bucket of sand on a 3-year-old wasn’t a great look. Then, ask them how Sandy (real name unknown) may have felt getting the dirt bath? Then ask them what they want to do about inflicting that feeling.

“Saying sorry is our way of saying I understand and acknowledge that,” Perillo says. “Kids do need to be held accountable for their behaviors and sorry does that.” An apology won’t get every grain of sand out of that kid’s diaper, but it’s a start.

Teach Them To Understand Someone Else’s POV

When someone wrongs your kid and it comes time for them to receive an apology, it helps to put that action into context. Why do they think that delinquent punched them in the nose? Was he tripping on a massive sugar high? Maybe he has behavior problems. Or maybe he was upset because your kid said he couldn’t throw a right cross. Whatever the case, teaching children to understand and accept why someone is apologizing for a mistake, makes them understand that everyone makes them. And that will make them more likely to apologize, themselves.

The Fix For A Kid Who Doesn’t Feel Sorry

Feeling sorry about stomping another person’s sandcastle requires empathy. If your kid is filled with only glee after doing this, then you’ve got some parenting to do. “It’s helpful for the person to state the feelings they may have caused someone to feel and know what they’re apologizing for,” Perillo says. “You’re teaching them to apologize mindfully.”

If they still don’t get it, try this:

  • Have Them Write A Letter: Sit the kid down and ask them to write a short letter to the person to whom they owe an apology. Even though they don’t need to actually hand over this letter (they can keep it for themselves, or mail it to Santa) this forces them to put themselves in the other kid’s shoes. They can spell out what they did wrong, and explain how they’d like each person to move on. Amicably, most likely.
  • For Little Kids, Try A Balloon: A figurative balloon, that is. “Have them visualize a balloon with a string attached to them,” says Perillo. “The balloon contains the incident and the feelings involved.” When they fully understand what they did and how it affected someone, they can take a pair of scissors and let it go. The scissors are also figurative.