Friday, March 6, 2009

Forcing the apology

It never ceases to amaze me. A child hits another and the adult makes the child go up to the victim (either at the time or hours later when the incident was reported to them), and says "Tell them you are sorry." And then waits until the child apologizes. I even read a discipline guide for toddlers that said to make them apologize. What does the forced apology do? Number one: it says, you can do anything you want as long as you apologize for it afterward. Number two: it is never sincere. A spontaneous apology is different. If a child does something and honestly feels sorry for doing that and apologizes, that is to be commended "That made me feel much better that you apologized to me." But to force an apology is never warranted and really only serves to make an embarrassed parent feel better.

The better alternative is to have the child ask the other child what would make him or her feel better. This teaches the aggressor to empathize with the victim and also teaches him or her responsibility for his or her actions. Then, help the aggressor follow through. If the victim requests an ice pack, the aggressor gets the ice pack and holds it on the hurt body part until the victim says it feels better. Let the victim be the guide. Until he or she says it is OK, the aggressor must tend to him or her.

Teaching the lesson of apology is better left to times when an incident has not occurred. Through books and by modeling apologetic behavior when appropriate. This way the child learns that saying I'm sorry comes from within, when he or she is truly feeling bad for their actions.

One day at school we had this situation happen. A student had hit the teacher. The parent told him that they could not leave school until he apologized. He promptly apologized. We pulled the parent aside and explained that we do not force apologies and told her why. She went over to her son and said "Are you really sorry, or did you say it just because I told you to?" He said, "I said it because you told me to." Vindication...


  1. Very interesting not to force an apology...I have been doing that and I will re-think it after reading that post.
    Curri Seifert

  2. I don't agree that it is wrong for a parent to bring the child back to the victim and ask the child to say sorry. If the child refuses at that point, I think it should not be forced to say sorry but it should be dealt with another way..
    Why do you think a forced apology gives the child the message that it can do anything it wants as long as it apologises? Surely other consequences of it doing naughty things prevent that? (Child having privileges removed or having to make amends etc etc.) Sorry should not always be the end of the lesson. I think there are many benefits of a child being prompted for an apology (for the child concerned and the victim).
    I am not saying real forced apologies are right and agree the scenario in you last paragraph is a good example of where they are no use, but I do think it is right to tell your child to say sorry at the scene of an incident, as well as to make amends.
    Discussing with a child that saying sorry is a good thing on a separate occasion does not necessarily make it more genuine.

  3. Asking a child to feel apologetic is a like asking a child to feel happy. It is an emotion that cannot be requested of someone when an adult feels the need to not be embarrassed in a situation. It is something that comes from within the child's heart, and prompting an apology when you feel the situation warrants it does not change (or teach)what should be in a child's heart. When a child sincerely apologizes you can applaud that, but even asking them to apologize is a farce. I do agree though that making amends is important, but an apology is not amends. I wonder what you believe the benefits of prompting an apology are? Words do not create an apologetic feeling, so what good is saying the words?

  4. I agree with your advice, Tammy. We do make our 3 young kids say sorry if they hurt someone, but it always seems so fake. Often they just stand there after saying sorry, while the hurt child cries, and that is what I can't stand the most. I want to teach them what to DO to make the other person feel better. For a long time, I have had them ask what they can do or bring to amend the situation. That ended up being a little comical, because it would end up being something like "draw a picture for me"...something that the aggressor really didn't want to do, and that seemed a little unwarranted for a simple bump during rough play. So, we kind of moved to, "Please stay next to the person, ask if they want a drink or a favorite stuffed animal, and make sure they are okay before you go play again". This has been working ok, but I haven't really addressed it at a separate time, so I am always prompting them.

    It was wonderful the other day when my 5 year old nephew hurt his finger, and I prompted my son (who hurt him accidentally) to ask if he wanted a drink. My nephew said no, but then out of the blue, my 2 year old brought him her favorite stuffed animal, and my 3 year old brought him a cup of water and explained how when SHE hurt her finger, it made her feel better to put it in cold water, and maybe he wanted to try it. It was so sweet to see their compassion in action:)

  5. Tammy, I think there are a lot of things children don't want to do when actually it is appropriate for them to do it. I did say I don't think it is right to FORCE them but to prompt them at that moment, teaches them that it is the done thing and emphasises right and wrong..if it doesn’t come then maybe it’s a case of ‘Don’t care was made to care’.
    It is definitely not a farce because the benefits I’m talking about are seen when my two year old and other children involved are put at ease or even delighted when they are either apologised to or are given that chance to make someone feel better by apologising. Sometimes what they do is an impulse and most children (or children I have come into contact with anyway) are genuinely remorseful immediately after, especially if they have made someone cry. Knowing my son's temperament so well and knowing that he really hates to upset anyone and feels apologetic very easily, and bearing in mind that at his young age when sorry might not come immediately, it definitely helps him to express his emotions if he is prompted.
    If my son’s behaviour is bad enough to feel embarrassed, then no apology from him will remove that embarrassment. I would be aware that I need to be giving him better lessons about what’s right and wrong and I would be the one apologising. As mentioned in the post above, it's not always possible to do anything other than say sorry and in a day and age where people say sorry less and less and struggle so much with pride, I am so happy that my son is taught that apologising AND making amends are the right thing.

  6. I have been struggling with this too. We have always tried to explain to my son that he did something that was hurtful to someone else (mostly since his little sister was born) and that you would say sorry with a maybe a kiss and hug, or give it back, or trade toys instead of just taking it, etc.

    But lately, most of the time, he seems a little resentful to have to say sorry. He's 3 1/2 and his sister is almost 2. She has a dramatic personality so she can get upset over the tiniest things. He knows how to push her buttons though. Most of the time I tell him that you did "____" and that made her cry. What do you say? and usually he will say sorry and sometimes give a kiss and hug. Sometimes he'll say sorry on his own.

    Lately I have been noticing that his "sorry's" seem forced and he seems angry about having to say it. She's usually fine and happy when she gets her kiss or hug from him. And so it has been making me rethink "making" him say sorry. When he says it forced, it doesn't make ME feel any better (as a parent) because I know he doesn't mean it. I do always tell him "thank you for saying sorry", especially when he says it on his own. So, I've been thinking on what I should try to do to help him sympathize. Sometimes he'll do something to her and she's crying, but he doesn't seem to care. It breaks my heart a little because I want him to sympathize and empathize. And I'm thinking maybe I've hindered that in him a little by ensuring that he SAYS sorry rather than FEEL it? There have been a few times where he says "sorry" without words and made amends, if he took a toy from her and she cries, without me saying anything he'll give her another toy and say "here, you can play with this one" and usually she's ok with that. That always feels more sincere than him saying sorry by my prompting.

    I liked your suggestion to have them ask the other what would make them feel better. But my daughter is not even two yet, and she wouldn't be able to answer like an older child. She seems to be happy if he gives her a kiss or hug, sometimes she almost asks for it by putting her arms out for a hug or making kissing noises with her mouth to get a kiss from him. Any suggestions?