We’re Teaching Kids to Apologize All Wrong


Nov 4, 2016


It’s an ingrained response in most of us: when we do something wrong or hurtful, we say, “Sorry.” It’s basic good manners, and we want our kids to learn that courtesy, too – society expects it of them and will judge them harshly if they fail to apologize when they err. The question is, are we teaching kids to apologize in the right way?

Teaching kids to say sorry immediately is an instinct we might find hard to suppress, but it can actually backfire. The reason is similar to why threats don’t work as a means of discipline: Do it enough, without explanation, and the child becomes desensitized. It empties the word of meaning.

Sorry” becomes a reaction, rather than an act of contrition, and the child never learns the ‘good’ alternative, only what is ‘bad.’ Children don’t learn that sorry is about choosing to express empathy and concern, that it is an attempt to acknowledge responsibility for our behaviour and extend a reparative olive branch. They just learn that it is the expected response.

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The result can be a child who knows to apologize, but doesn’t know how to avoid the rude or hurtful behaviour in the first place. As one 15-year-old client told me: “I’m always wrong and I can’t do anything but apologize.” He wondered if anyone could ever like him, as he feared he would again do something wrong and would end up apologizing.

Sorry, when misunderstood, can also be used as a power play, particularly between siblings. I hear deep guilt and, at times, resentment, when one sibling is constantly forced to utter an apology. Whether the older sibling (“who should know better”) or the younger sibling (“who should show more respect”), teaching kids to apologize by forcing a “sorry” conveys that it is OK for someone to demand an apology, which can be used to humiliate or subdue and further strip “sorry” of its meaning.

So no matter what your child has done, in public or at home, resist the natural urge to make them “say sorry” right away. Instead, follow these steps for teaching children to apologize. And in the future, you may not have to tell them to “say sorry” at all; the apology will come sincerely and naturally – or better still, the situation will be avoided because the child understands better ways to express his emotions.

How we should be teaching kids to apologize

Ask about his emotions.

After an incident in which your child is at fault, take him away to a quiet place for few minutes. Help him become aware of his emotions by asking open-ended questions such as, “What did you feel when Aditi didn’t give you the toy?” Avoid asking why, as it is a more difficult question – answering requires the child to connect his emotions to his actions on his own; the point of this conversation, which builds emotional intelligence in children, is to teach him how to do that.

Help her empathize.

Next, talk about the other person’s emotions. This helps your child see the cause-and-effect of her actions and builds empathy. Again, asking questions is a good course because it allows your child to arrive at the answer for herself and strengthens the message. “How do you think Aditi felt when you hit her?” “Do you like it when your friends hit you?”

Brainstorm alternative actions.

Getting the child to come up with different ways to handle a situation helps him build his ability to manage his emotions and gives him a toolkit to draw from in future, similar scenarios. Questions like, “What could you have done differently?” can prompt his thinking. If he struggles to come up with other ideas, feel free to make suggestions. “Could you have said please?” “Could you have played with another toy while you waited?” “Could you have asked [adult] for help?”

Discuss ways to repair the damage.

Again, keep the questions open-ended: “What do you think you can do help Aditi feel better?” Feel free to suggest saying “sorry,” but be open to other ideas from your child; a verbal apology isn’t the only way to express remorse and mend relationships, and you might be surprised by what your child comes up with. If she suggests giving a hug or sharing a toy or drawing a picture – let her. If she has input in how to say sorry, the lesson is more likely to stick and there is less opportunity for resentment to build.

Help your child enact his apology.

Teaching kids to apologize through these steps only accomplishes so much unless they actually see through their plan. If your child feels shy or self-conscious, you can reassure him you’ll be beside him, but let him take the action you both discussed in order to right the wrong.

Many children tell me that the easiest way to get out of conflict is by merely saying sorry. If sorry is becoming an easy escape, the way we are teaching kids to apologize has missed the point.

Both adults and children can sense when apologies don’t seem genuine. When a child understands her motivations, how her actions affect others, and what alternatives she could have taken, an apology will be a heartfelt, spontaneous response. And there will be no need to tell the child, “Say sorry.”


Written By Sonali Gupta

Sonali Gupta is a practicing clinical psychologist with 10 years of experience. She conducts workshops to enhance the emotional well-being of couples, parents and children. She can be reached at sonaligupta297@gmail.com. You can find more of Sonali’s thoughts on Twitter (@guptasonali) and on her website, guptasonali.com


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