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Forcing apologies: Why do we make our kids say they’re sorry?

Forcing your child to say “you’re sorry” has suddenly become a hotly contested topic. The premise of our article, if you haven’t seen it, was that it is not always wise to force a “sorry” out of a young child. Remember, we are talking about the 4 years of age and under crowd here, and so there are developmental reasons why this might not work as a lesson from a parent to a child.

The “say you’re sorry” topic recently arose in the Motherload blog in the New York Times. This week’s blog “In Switzerland Parents Observe. In the US, Hovering is required” involved the writer’s musings on an interaction between her 3-year-old child and another 18-month-old child and a fake sugar packet. The premise was that in a (mild) child altercation over a toy, parents in the US are likely to immediately jump in and demand apologies from one or both children, in attempt to resolve the conflict. Parents of other cultures might be content to observe and allow the children to work things out alone. The writer, recently located back in the US from Switzerland, wondered if she would be able to parent as she had been taught there or if she must switch her style to accommodate what she saw as the expectation of other US parents. She also mused about what she saw as an overuse of “sorry” in US culture.

What I found more interesting than the article were the comments regarding apologies. Indeed, many people see apologies as an integral part of social interactions and feel strongly that children should and must apologize. While I agree to an extent, I think apologies have limited utility before age three or four. When a child displays a behavior that is interpreted as hurtful, it is rarely motivated by the desire to hurt. When a two year old pushes another child away from a desired toy, the intent is not to harm another person. The intent is to obtain the toy. Forcing the “sorry” is then confusing because the toy is the object of intent, not the crying child at the periphery of the offender’s focus. The offender often does not have a clue what is upsetting the adult, only that another kid is crying and now a grown up has likely ripped the desired toy out of their hand.

Instead, offering a calm, clear correction of the behavior is better. For example, “You wanted this toy. You may not push even when you want a toy. Pushing hurts.” Then model a sincere apology to the upset child. “I am sorry you were pushed. He did not mean to make you cry. Are you okay?” This helps the youngest children begin to see that their actions have consequences such as hurting others even when they did not intend to harm. It also avoids shaming the child. We know that shame is a negative emotion unlikely to foster any positive long-term emotional growth, so avoid it when teaching lessons. As children age, the ability to understand that actions have consequences and that certain behaviors are off limits (pushing, biting, etc.) grows. But again, teaching apologies in a developmentally appropriate way while avoiding shame is key.

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About Dr. Sara Connolly, Bundoo Medical Director

Sara Connolly, MD, FAAP, is a Board Certified Pediatrician who practices in Palm Beach County, Florida. She completed her residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital at the University of Miami, where she served as Chief Resident. She has a passion for child advocacy and has worked on the local, state, and national level to increase access to care for children. Her interests include nutrition, breastfeeding, and parenting skills.

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