Child won't say sorry? Don't use force, try this instead
This is one of the hardest things parents tell us they have to deal with, and we often get asked at what age children should be made to say sorry.
Picture the scene – you’re in the playground or at soft play, your child is playing happily with another child when suddenly you see them reach out and smack the other child on the head. And of course, the other child’s parent has watched the whole scene unfold…
You: “You need to say sorry now”
Your child: (staring at you blankly – frankly because they usually have no idea why you’re asking them to do that)
You: (in an even firmer voice) “I said say sorry”
Your child: (either continues to stare, starts to cry themselves or does that over-the-top, completely and utterly insincere “I’M SO-RRY”… #sorrynotsorry anyone?!)
The only thing that is really achieved in this situation is a transfer of some of the embarrassment that you were feeling onto your child, you both end up feeling pretty rubbish – and the other child is still feeling hurt.
When you force your child to say sorry after an incident and leave it at that, all you’re really teaching them is how to say the word, and that if you say it then that’s all you need to do. It might sound a bit extreme but you’re essentially teaching them to lie by getting them to say something they don’t mean.
NOTE: It’s not only children that this happens to. Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve done or said something to someone else that you shouldn’t have done or said but not felt able to apologise? That’s because you weren’t sorry. And if you had have said it at that point then it wouldn’t have been genuine. Which to me is far worse – I’d rather not receive an apology at all rather than receive an insincere one.
Why do children find this hard?
The reason children often struggle to say sorry is that young children have an underdeveloped Theory of Mind, which in essence is the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, to empathise with another.
Theory of Mind is said to start developing at around the age of 4 or 5 so it’s pretty much out of the question to expect a genuine and sincere sorry before that age.
However, even if your child is younger, that doesn’t mean that you should let things slide or that you shouldn’t intervene in a situation where your child hurts someone or otherwise does something wrong. And even if your child is older, that doesn’t mean that they should always be able to apologise in a situation where an apology might be called for.
Of course, you want to work on helping your child develop empathy, because it’s only when we are able to empathise with others that we are able to say sorry and sincerely mean it.
The fact is that when children (or indeed adults) are forced to apoogise, the resulting feeling is more likely to be one of humiliation rather than remorse.
Which, I’m sure, is not what you’re aiming for.
Think about what you want your child to think or understand when they say they’re sorry. If they have hurt another child, you want them to be sorry because that child is in pain. If they have broken something that belongs to you, you want them to be sorry because you no longer have that item.
And none of this can be achieved simply by saying the word with no meaning behind it.
So, what could you do?
Here are some ways to encourage your child to emapthise with someone else (and help them to eventually realise the value of ‘sorry’):
The most obvious in my book: You need to apologise to them when you hurt them or do something wrong!
Even if it was accidental or as the result of a misunderstanding, if you anger or upset your child you need to apologise to them. Saying sorry is a good place to start, but showing them you’re sorry would be even more effective.
Which leads on to the next idea….
Offer opportunities to repair
When your child does something wrong to someone else, take the time to work out with them how they can make it better. In her brilliant book, Calm Parents, Happy Kids, Dr. Laura Markham advocates ‘repair’ as one of the three stages in her Three R’s of empowering children to make amends.
‘Repairing’ doesn’t have to be done by saying the word sorry but could instead be done by making a card, doing something helpful or doing something kind, e.g. making a drink for a sibling who has been hurt. As long as your child knows why they’re doing it (and as long as this isn’t enforced by you or made to feel like a punishment) then the end result is the same.
And it may even achieve more than just a plain old sorry - after all, actions speak louder than words.
Say sorry yourself
We know that our children learn far more from what they see us do than from what they hear us say. So, where your child has hurt another child, the best thing you can do in a situation like the playground one is apologise on their behalf, to the other child and their parent.
The reason this is way more effective is because you will genuinely mean it! It will also serve to reduce that awful feeling of embarrassment you felt when it happened.
And of course, it's a perfect way of modelling; instead of telling them what to do, you’re showing your child what they could do.
For an older, school-age child, you might want to try the following too:
Wait! As tempted as you might be to jump in and direct them to apologise, just hang back for a moment to see what they do of their own volition – they may just surprise you.
(And if you still get nothing, go back to number 2).