When we try to make our child apologize, we have to ask ourselves why and what they learn from that.
Of course we want the wronged person to feel better and we want our child to learn from their actions. However, getting our child to just say the words is at best meaningless and at worst leads to a power struggle.
Say our child accidentally knocks over a smaller child at the playground and then keeps playing. Or maybe our child couldn’t wait for their turn on the swing and got upset and pushed their friend off the swing.
Our first reaction might be embarrassment! We don’t want the other parents to think our child is rude or unkind. We also want our children to be accountable for their actions. We might call out, “Say you’re sorry!!”
We’ve all heard the ‘sorry!’ tossed over the shoulder at the playground as a child runs away after being told to apologize. A forced apology will not be sincere for the person receiving it, and means even less to the person giving it.
Or maybe our child refuses to apologize. If we seem angry or upset, or the other parents do, our child might feel from our reaction, “My parent thinks I’m a bad person.” To avoid feeling this shame, our child might refuse to apologize and might even try to tell us how it wasn’t their fault. “They were in my way!” or “I told them to move and they didn’t!” The worst thing in the world for our child is to feel unworthy and unloveable in our eyes, so they reject the idea that there is anything to apologize about and we find ourselves in a power struggle.
We need to refocus on what we want in these situations. We want our child to learn from the situation. We want our child to try to make things better with the other person. Both of the aims have nothing to do with anyone else watching or with uttering the words, “I’m sorry.” Yet that is what most of us are concerned with when these things happen.
What to do instead?
First, attend to the injured party if it’s necessary.
Then calm yourself so you can stay in the moment and not get carried away by our fears.
Many of us don’t even realize it but we are acting from a place of, “What if they turn out to be a bully?” or “What if this means they have no feelings or are a horrible person?” Tell yourself instead, “This is a moment in time. My child is still learning. They need my love and understanding.” (Or whatever helps you feel not afraid!)
Or maybe you’re afraid of what the people around you are thinking. It’s helpful to remember that you don’t have to be perfect and that great parents still have kids who mess up sometimes. It’s also helpful to remind yourself that your loyalty is to your child, not to the other parents at the playground.
Next, when you speak to your child, lead with empathy and acknowledge their point of view. “You know, I’m not sure you saw that little child standing there when you ran by, but you accidentally knocked him over.” Or, “I know it’s so hard to wait for your turn. You’d been waiting and waiting and you got frustrated. At the same time, we can’t pull anyone off the swing.” This lets them know that even though they have done something wrong, you still think they are a good person. Your child knows you understand and does not feel shamed. This is the key difference between “I am bad” (shame) and “I did something bad” (guilt). We can always fix it if we’ve done something bad. We can never fix it if we feel we are bad.
Invite a repair. If your child is upset, you may need to wait a little bit or help them calm down. Parents often try to do this too soon. Anyone who is still angry really isn’t ready to apologize.
A repair doesn’t have to be “I’m sorry” I suggest asking a child, “even though you didn’t mean to knock that child down, I wonder if there is something you can do to make them feel better?” Or, “You were really upset when you pulled your friend off the swing, huh? I get that. I know you didn’t intend it, but it really hurt their arm. Is there anything you might do to make them feel better?”
If our child still refuses, it’s because they are either still angry or still feel some shame that is making them resistant. Or both! Go back to the previous steps.
If our child still refuses, we can be gracious and model the apology for them. (A side note? Make it a practice to model your own apologies. If we never apologize and repair when we mess up, how can we expect our child to do so?) We can say, “Oh I’m so sorry about that! Are you okay? Is there anything we can do?”
When we move away from shaming or power struggles, and stay out of our own fear, our child is able to act in the true spirit of apology: Apologies not only make the other person feel better, they help us feel like a good person again.