How early did you being telling your children to apologize? Do your remind them to say, “I’m sorry,” multiple times a day? If you do, you may have realized that just saying, “I’m sorry,” often isn’t good enough.
The phrase becomes so common and over used that it’s simply a phrase rather than an expression of regret and responsibility.
We tell our children to say, “I’m sorry,” at the park when they run into another child, at a play date when they take another child’s toy, and at home when they quarrel with their siblings over every little thing. We keep prompting them to say, “I’m sorry,” over and over again. They mimic our words. They say it, but do they feel it?
Why “I’m Sorry” Doesn’t Work (by itself)
I’ve noticed several problems with the phrase, “I’m sorry.” It has limitations, and if requiring a child to say it is the end of our discipline, we are missing the big picture.
- Does the child know what they are supposed to be sorry for? It’s funny how often we are so quick to have them apologize that we forget to help them recognize their mistake in the first place. Ask them! They might not know what they did wrong.
- Words don’t equal feelings. Can they empathize? Have they put themselves in the other person’s shoes to understand why their behavior was hurtful?
- It’s okay to have feelings. Is your child upset, angry, or frustrated? What feelings led them to take harmful action. Acknowledge those feelings. It’s okay to have feelings. It’s normal. We just have to respond to them correctly.
- Take Action! Is there something your child can do to help make their mistake right? Adding that bit of action to the feeling of regret for hurting another person gives them immediate power to do something about it, to change.
- Does your child still feel loved? So often children take correction much more personally than we realize. We have to be clear that we condemn the action, not the child.
I want my children to be sorry, not just say it. I want them to know why they are sorry, and to leave the situation with a plan to avoid repeating it. That is why I changed the apology process at our house. This is what it looks like now:
I’m Sorry – For What?
My children are not allowed to say the phrase, “I’m sorry,” on it’s own. Instead, when they start with the words, “I’m sorry,” I pipe in, “For what?” This add-on to the universal, two-word apology sentence requires the child to immediately recognize and take ownership of their negative action.
Sometimes they respond, “I don’t know.” This indicates to me that a teaching moment is needed. They don’t understand how their action was hurtful or what else they could have done in their situation.
We talk. We discuss, and we come up with an action plan for next time.
A Game Plan
Topping the list of my most frustrating parenting experiences, is watching a child leave a timeout session, only to be back moments later for the same offense. This is why, immediately after after, “I’m sorry,” and the subsequent “for what” explanation, my children are required to state their plan to act or react differently the next time.
If they need help with a plan, we strategize for next time.
“Sister took my toy and wouldn’t give it back, so I hit her.” ” What are we going to do differently next time? First, try to talk to her. Ask for your toy back. Next, try a trade. If that doesn’t work, come and talk to mom.”
It’s Okay to Feel
If your child is acting out, it’s probably a result of big feelings they’re having. What are those feelings? I’m amazed at how effective just acknowledging their feelings can help calm a child down. They NEED to be understood. Then we can talk about how to handle those big feelings.
“Are you mad because someone took your toy? It’s okay to be mad. I would be upset if someone took my things too. Being mad is not the problem here. Everyone gets mad, but we have to handle our anger correctly. We can hit someone because we’re mad. We start by talking with them. If that doesn’t work, take your case to mom or dad.”
Action Plan – Make it Right
Did the action, they now feel sorry for, cause damage? Did it hurt someone? Is there something they can do to make restitution? If so, they are obligated to do what lies in their power to solve the problem of their creation.
Begrudgingly saying the words, “I’m sorry,” won’t fix a baseball sized hole in the neighbor’s window. No. If they took something, they need to give it back. If they broke something, they can attempt to repair it or earn money to cover the damage. If they hurt someone, they can try to comfort and make amends.
The work required to correct their harmful actions gives children additional incentive to seek other ways to solve their problems than violence. It encourages them to show greater respect for other’s personal property, and it reinforces the concept of accountability.
Condemn the Action, Not the Child
Children are desperately learning to control all of the big feelings and emotions they have. It’s tricky, and they’re going to make lots of mistakes while they practice. We need to remind them that we love them.
We don’t love their poor choices, but we do love them. We believe in them. They can try again. They can get better. They can be stronger, and learn how to handle difficult situations with grace and courage. It’s a process, and we’re here for them while they figure it out.
Disputes will happen as children grow and develop. However, instead of a bitter, forced, “I’m sorry,” exchange that means absolutely nothing to anyone, our children can have a meaningful conversation. They can express their feelings between injured parties. They can talk. They can feel. They can realize their power to solve problems rather than just react.