Should We Make Children Apologise?

Lynn Schreiber

According a survey, the average British person will say sorry 1.9m times in their lifetime. We say sorry for stepping on toes, sorry for having our toes stepped on, for bumping into people and for being bumped into. Can you get through the day without uttering that word? I doubt it. How and when do you teach your children to say sorry, and is it right to make children apologise?

In the Guardian, David Mitchell told this story

It reminds me of being made to apologise as a child. I remember a specific occasion when my parents were furious with me for some reason. And I was furious with them. It was a standoff. They were demanding an apology or else, as I recall it, basically nothing was to be allowed in future: food, sleep, not eating all my food, not immediately going to sleep, going outside, being allowed inside, contact with the cat – all banned. It was a massive campaign of sanctions and I was livid. And so I apologised. And then my mother said: “Say it like you mean it.”

“But I don’t mean it!” I screamed, trying to reason with her.

“Well it doesn’t count if you don’t mean it.”

Most children learn to say sorry when they are toddlers, and are well aware of the importance of apologising by the time they reach their tweens. What should parents do, if a child refuses to say sorry for their actions?

Be a Role Model

Kids learn by observing the world around them. If they have a parent who is unwilling to apologise for their mistakes, they will pick up on that behaviour. It is important to be open and honest when things go wrong, and accept responsibility. Don’t shift the blame onto others if you are late to pick up your child from dance class. “I’m sorry, I left the house too late”, is much better than, “There was so much traffic!”.

Don’t Issue Ultimatums

We’ve all been there. “If you don’t say sorry, we won’t go to the birthday party!” (or whatever threat that you think will work). Often as soon as the words are out of our mouths, we are thinking ‘nooooooooooooooo, what have I done?!’, because depending on the stubborn level of the child in question, we know that we’ve backed ourselves into a corner, and we won’t escape without someone losing face. If you do this, then the best way out of it is to say, “I’m sorry, I was angry and I over-reacted. Let’s sit down and talk about this”. This also models apologising, so helps your child see that apologising isn’t losing the argument.

Don’t Teach them to Appease

A sincere apology is worth more than one recited by rote, so forcing an apology doesn’t teach them anything except ways to appease someone, even if you are not truly sorry for the hurt you have caused. The next time they do something wrong, they know that a glibly uttered apology will get them off the hook. It doesn’t change the actual behaviour, just gives them an ‘get out of jail free’ card.

The Importance of Empathy

To take an example – 12 year old Lily was being teased by her sister, and reacted angrily by slapping the younger girl. Instead of making them apologise, when they are both still angry with each other, take a moment to sit and talk to them about their feelings. How did Lily feel when she was teased by her sister. How did her sister feel when Lily teased her. What could they both do to make it up to each other?

Do you have empathy for your child? How do you react when she makes a mistake? Your daughter accidentally drops a favourite vase, and looks fearfully at you. She knows that it was a beloved possession, and is worried about your reaction. If you accept her tearful apology with empathy rather than a sharp rebuke, then she learns to be aware of the feelings of others.

Forgive and Forget

When an apology is offered, accept and move on. Don’t raise the topic again, and don’t refer to it in later arguments. Avoid the use of “never” and “always. No one likes to be reminded of previous transgressions, and you run the risk of building resentment. Instead of asking, “Why do you ALWAYS leave your washing on the floor of the bathroom”, try a simple statement, “There are dirty clothes on the floor of the bathroom”. I’m betting that the second sentence is more likely to net an apology than the first!


Any thoughts? Let us know in the comments, or join our Facebook group  to take part in the conversation. 


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