Were you ever forced to apologize to someone as a child? If you were, you may be able to recall the mix of negative emotions flooding through your body at the time. Perhaps you were still angry about whatever had previously transpired; perhaps you were feeling a bit resentful of how things were being handled; perhaps you were a bit embarrassed by the whole situation; perhaps there was a little bit of a guilt, deep inside, and somewhere nearby perhaps some true apologetic feelings lurked, not quite ready to swim to the surface. Then came the forced apology — more than likely given in a mumble and devoid of eye contact — before all parties walked away, no one feeling a sense of closure. Nearly everyone I know can relate to this experience as a child. And yet, as adults, we continue to force apologies from children in the face of our own frustration, embarrassment, or sense of duty.
The other day I observed a teacher extracting an apology from a three-year-old child. The child hadn’t been “a good listener,” and so was sitting to one side of the play yard with a teacher as she talked about the importance of listening well. She talked for awhile and the child fidgeted on the bench beside her for awhile and then she asked, “Are you ready to say ‘sorry’?” The child perked up right away. “Sorry!” he eagerly chirped, sliding forward on the bench, preparing to launch himself back into play. “I forgive you,” the teacher said with a smile, and both parties left the bench.
I don’t know this child and I don’t know what happened from there for the rest of his day. I can speculate, however, that he wasn’t feeling terribly apologetic for not listening (incidentally, it doesn’t seem to be the listening that was the real issue, but the following of directions). It seemed clear to me that his pat apology was issued with confidence, so somewhere along the way he had already learned that, “Sorry!” was an effective way to extract oneself from these situations. And he’s only three! I feel we have enough evidence from this alone to declare this child not only a Good Listener but also an absolutely terrific observer. As for what the teacher took away from this experience, it’s hard to say, but she did seem to be satisfied by what had transpired, so I imagine that this was a case of a teacher going through the motions. Have you ever been on the receiving end of a forced apology? It’s generally not a very satisfying place to be.
What is the goal with forced apologies? In some cases, it’s an almost reflexive end to what one perceives as a teaching moment, as seen above — the teacher wished for the child to feel regretful about not being a better “listener” and tried to prompt those feelings (and, one presumes, the resultant listening) with a forced apology. In other cases, it’s more guilt or embarrassment-driven, as when one child has hurt another or conflict of some kind has arisen. We force children to apologize when we feel an apology is called for. That’s not wrong. We want children to get along in society with “please”s and “thank you”s and “excuse me”s and apologies too, when apologies are necessary. And how will they learn unless we teach them? That’s our job, as parents, as teachers, as caregivers. But I would like to suggest that we teach them not through telling them, not through forcing them, but through demonstrating true empathy and by modeling active conflict resolution skills.
[W]hen we ask children to apologize prematurely we are actually devaluing the process of working through conflict. We’re sending the message that we ought to just quickly apologize, even if we don’t feel sorry as a way to smooth over the incident. We’re also inadvertently teaching kids that conflicts should be avoided, rather than used as an opportunity to connect further and get to know each other better.
Conflict can be intensely uncomfortable. It’s unpredictable, it doesn’t feel safe, and often we adults have spent most of our lives trying to avoid it (by doing things like saying, “I’m sorry!” almost instinctively). Learning the skills to use in navigating conflict makes it much easier and more effective, if not more comfortable. Young children can really find their voices and their confidence through learning conflict resolution skills and these are skills they will carry with them for a lifetime. In the preschool environments that prioritize conflict resolution and the development of pro-social skills, it’s awesome to hear the children using the language and skills they have soaked up from their teachers.
A good place to start with young children (as young as older infants or young toddlers) is to look at what’s happened and simply narrate and explain it. An example might be when one child has pulled the hair of another and the one who has had their hair pulled is crying. “You’re upset that your hair got pulled!” you might observe, “That really hurt your head.” You might offer additional comfort to the crying child, if needed, and observe to the other, “It hurts when you pull hair. This child doesn’t like to have their hair pulled.” When I’m working with infants and toddlers, I tell the child who has been hurt, “You can tell them you don’t like that. You can tell them it hurts.” Depending on their age and developmental abilities, I might show them the sign for “hurt” or the sign for “stop”, I will model talking directly to the child who did the hurting, and I will repeat, “You didn’t like that. They didn’t like that.” I will model “gentle” hands by touching both children gently and signing “gentle”. A positive replacement for prompting an apology might be to ask, “How can we help?” Young preschool children will have dozens of great ideas for how to help their friends and sometimes their ideas even circle back to, “I could say I’m sorry,” or, “They could tell me sorry.” True, heartfelt apologies are a wonderful balm for hurts.
I use the words, “I’m sorry,” when I feel bad about something that has transpired. Not to assume responsibility, but to express empathy. For example, to a child who has had their hair pulled, I’ll often say, “I’m sorry that happened to you. That hurt you.” I am sorry it happened. If you find yourself feeling sorry for a child who has been hurt by your child, I think it’s great to express that. You don’t have to force an unwilling child to apologize when there is no meaning behind it, but you set an example of empathy when you tell a hurt child, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” and you ask the child who did the hurting, “I wonder how we could help them to feel better?” When you truly model kindness and empathy, you will begin to observe that the forced apology has no place because children are handling their conflicts and reflecting those values.