I was at a 4-year-old’s birthday party recently with enough kids to give even the most capable parent a panic attack. There was a lot of running around and screeching and general pandemonium, as to be expected in that setting. But one of the kids was a little rowdier than the others and apparently kept banging into them, taking their toys, and cutting them in line.
The rowdy kid’s mom kept marching him over to his various victims to say, “I’m sorry.” It happened several times, it clearly wasn’t resolving anything, and it was slightly painful to watch. I felt for this mom because I’ve been her, making my three children apologize to their friends for a number of offenses, despite my hunch that this may not be the most effective approach.
I usually do it as a formality to let the other mother know that I know my kid did something wrong, and we’re going to atone for it. But I’m done doing that because, it turns out, I was right: “Apologizing can be a great way to make things better between children, but forcing them to do it is teaching all the wrong lessons,” Laura Markham, a child psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, tells Yahoo Parenting. Here’s why forced apologies are not a good idea — and what parents should be doing instead.
Why you shouldn’t make your child apologize:
First, it doesn’t actually do anything. “Decades of research on romantic relationships shows that when one person in the couple feels forced to apologize before he or she is ready, it doesn’t help repair the relationship at all,” says Markham. “We believe the same is true for children when it comes to friends and siblings.” It actually shames the child, and, adds Markham, “when kids are shamed, they feel worse, which means they can’t do better.” That’s especially true in the case of the repeat offender at the birthday party. “The mom is probably doing that to make herself feel a little less ashamed,” she says. “But if you ask children what they think of this practice, they’ll tell you: ‘When I’m mad, I hate apologizing. It just makes me madder.’ Or, ‘I don’t like it when my brother apologizes to me when my parents make him do it, because he acts like he doesn’t even mean it and it makes me mad all over again,’ or ‘It’s lying to apologize when you don’t mean it.’”
What you should have kids do instead:
Focus on helping children communicate rather than on habitually apologizing. “If I were the parent of a young perpetrator, I would say to my child, ‘Oh no, Henry is crying, let’s see how we can help him,’” says Markham, who adds that the offending child can give back a toy or ask if his friend is OK. “You want to empower your child to see himself as a generous person who can make things better when he’s done something hurtful.”
Then, after Henry has recovered, model an appropriate response. “I would put my arm around my son and say, ‘We are so sorry that Gabriel hurt you; he forgot to use his words. We’re so glad you feel better,’” says Markham. This makes sure the hurt child gets an apology, and shows the other mom you’re doing something to make amends. Then, walk your child out of the situation for a bit so he can get emotionally regulated again. “He may have to blow off steam about why he lashed out in the first place,” she says. With older kids, it’s important to let them figure out how to repair the relationship. “When you teach your child to apologize, you aren’t assigning him a ‘consequence’ to pay off his debt,” says Markham. “Give him some ideas, but ultimately let him choose what he might do to make things better.”
Lead by example:
“Children learn from us how to repair relationships,” says Markham. “Be sure that when you and your child have a relationship rupture, you apologize and find ways to reconnect.”
Bottom line: “I’m sorry” is an important tool in all relationships, but if we teach kids to mindlessly blurt it out any time they’ve messed up, it loses its meaning and power. And our children miss the opportunity to actually learn from their mistakes. Isn’t that the whole point?
Please follow @YahooParenting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Have an interesting story to share about your family? Email us at YParenting (at) Yahoo.com.