“Say you’re sorry,” we say to our kids when they grab someone’s toy, hit their sibling, or do the many other undesirable things they do as they’re learning to respect other people’s possessions and bodies.
And that’s often where the conversation ends, with little if any discussion of what happened, why it was hurtful to the person they’re apologizing to, how they can address the hurt they caused, and what they can do to change their behaviour.
These perfunctory “sorry”s—especially when uttered begrudgingly—do nothing to address the situation or behaviour, yet they remain the standard apology that children continue to use into adulthood.
That’s problematic, and we can see the ramifications of this in recent public apologies from prominent people like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer, who have repeatedly committed acts of sexual harassment and/or assault and think that just saying "sorry" is enough, even when followed by victim-blaming explanations that centre their point of view. These non-apology apologies are made to gain the benefits of apologizing (closure, forgiveness), but they are made without wholehearted remorse nor the will to make adequate repairs.
“They might offer an apology that contains excuses or blame-shifting (‘I apologize that my staff made the mistake’). Or their apology might involve conditional language, which shifts the focus to the person harmed (‘I'm sorry if you were offended’). Or it might be so vague or cursory as to be meaningless (‘I'm sorry for what happened’),” says Edwin Battistella, PhD, a professor of linguistics at Southern Oregon University and the author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology.
A real apology, however—whether the person delivering it is an adult or a child—needs to contain an acknowledgement that you did something wrong. And that is what can be so hard: No one likes to admit a mistake. There are a few reasons that. For one thing, the wrongdoer can feel ashamed or fear repercussions.
And then there’s something much too complicated for most kids to even know they’re feeling, called cognitive dissonance—otherwise known as that awkward feeling you get when you try to hold two contradictory beliefs at once. For instance, a child may believe they’re a kind person, but also see that they did something bad. How to ease that tension? Often by suggesting that what happened wasn’t really that bad. Or that the person deserved it.
The way we guide kids through an apology is as important as the apology itself. To remove the stigma from apologies, we need to be intentional about the way we react to kids’ mistakes. The first step to teaching your child how to apologize is to get your child—and yourself—to take a step back.
Let’s say your kid grabbed one of their friend’s toys and ran away with it, leaving their friend crying. Getting them to deal with the consequences of their actions in the heat of the moment isn’t going to work. They’re still feeling whatever emotions they have that caused them to behave that way in the first place. They need to calm down before they’re ready to listen to you and reflect on their actions.
So it’s not the best idea to yell, “Stop running and return that toy to your friend! You need to apologize right now.”
“I would respond with, ‘We need to ask to share our things because our friends’ feelings can get hurt otherwise’, said Ellen Goldsmith, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in children and adolescents. “It is always unwise to try to teach when we are angry or our children have difficulty hearing. We also can’t teach when we are embarrassed in front of others.”
Then when your child is calmer, you can address what happened.
This part is about helping your child figure out what they were feeling and how those emotions might have led to the problem behavior. So you might ask, “What were you feeling right before you took your friend’s toy?” Perhaps they were jealous of the friend’s toy or they were overly tired and needed some downtime. Whatever the reason, the emphasis should be on their actions being the problem, not their emotions. All emotions are okay, it’s how we deal with them that matter.
“We need to give words to the feelings. Otherwise children can get lost in their feelings as do we at times,” said Goldsmith.
Once they understand more about their emotions and behaviour, it’s time to talk about how the other person felt. This can be done by relating the situation back to something similar that happened to them. For instance, maybe your child’s sibling took their favorite toy without asking and refused to return it. You could ask them to think back and remember how they felt in that instance, then point out that that might be how their friend felt when they took the toy.
You’ll also want to problem solve the situation with your child by asking what they’d do differently if they could have a do-over. You can both throw out suggestions and role play scenarios together. Continuing with the same example, instead of taking the toy your child could have suggested playing with something else or removed themselves from the situation by asking for a snack or change of location.
“Brainstorming with children can make for wonderful teaching moments. It helps to write or draw the options of how to potentially respond,” said Goldsmith.
Showing kids that mistakes are opportunities to reflect and learn can change the way they view mistakes and combat the instinctive defensiveness that comes with admitting wrongdoing.
Now your child is ready to apologize. A sincere apology needs to prioritize the other person’s feelings as well as demonstrate remorse.
“A good apology needs to do several things. It needs to name the harm done, it needs to be sincerely remorseful, and it needs to repair the harm in some way (perhaps by showing how the offender has changed or by some other future action),” said Battistella.
At a teacher training, former elementary school teacher JoEllen Poon learned about a simple approach to apologies that hits all the key points. Three sentence stems—I’m sorry for, this is wrong because, and in the future I will—guide students through the steps. She talked about her experiences teaching kids to apologize in this popular post on her blog Cuppacocoa.
This is where your earlier talk with your child will come in handy because they’ll already know how to complete the sentences. Continuing with the example again:
I’m sorry for taking your toy without asking.
This is wrong because it hurt your feelings and it’s not my toy.
In the future I will suggest playing with something else instead of taking your toy.
When Poon implemented the approach in her classroom, it transformed her students’ apologies.
“My students began to really own their relationships in a new way. More and more often, they took the initiative to apologize to one another rather than wait for an adult to force them to do it. They stopped acting like they were ‘losing’ when they were apologizing, and rather that both of them were ‘winning’ together towards an improved situation. They also seemed to actually change their behaviours afterward—kids who were annoying other kids decreased those behaviours, and everyone seemed more sincere in their efforts to be harmonious with one another,” said Poon.
After apologizing, another way kids can make amends is by asking what they can do to help. For young kids, demonstrable ways of expressing their sincerity are especially satisfying. “Children learn by doing and hence a picture or note or hug can make all the difference. The same is true for us as adults too,” said Goldsmith.
Of course, one of the most effective ways for children to learn how to apologize is by watching us. Our kids are constantly mirroring us. When we practice what we preach, we’re reinforcing what a true apology looks like.
“We all learn by what others do rather than what they say. Hence all the more important to see us do as we teach and preach or they will see us as liars or hypocrites and they will remember this always,” said Goldsmith.
But what happens when your child genuinely doesn’t think they did anything wrong? They could be having a hard time admitting the wrongdoing to themselves or they might not understand the other person’s point of view. That’s when it’s important to get on the same page about what happened in order to get a shared understanding of the harm. Encourage your kid to ask their friend how they felt.
“Being able to talk to another person and listen to what the other person is explaining can help people gain a different perspective,” said Amy Hubbard, chair of the department of communicology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Hubbard was also one of four researchers who conducted the study, “Effects of timing and sincerity of an apology on satisfaction, understanding, and changes in negative feelings during conflicts.”
All that being said, even the most genuine and stigma-free apology does not mean the apologizer is entitled to forgiveness. There are some things we won't be able to make right and some people who won't be willing to forgive us, and that's okay. It’s important to teach our kids that apologies are not about being forgiven, they’re about taking responsibility for our actions.
To be clear, half-hearted apologies do not necessarily lead to abusive behaviour, but learning to genuinely apologize, spot non-apology apologies, and embrace mistakes, especially at a young age, goes a long way toward instilling empathy, holding ourselves accountable, and preventing bad behaviour from becoming an abusive pattern in the future.
“When kids are taught this at a young age, it becomes natural and normal to them to apologize in a more complete way. They get used to being specific about their wrongdoing, examining the consequences of their actions and building empathy, making a plan to actually stop the unwanted behavior, and allowing themselves to experience the discomfort of a humble attitude in asking for forgiveness,” said Poon. “So many of us grow up learning to avoid so many of the uncomfortable emotions that come with an apology like this, that it becomes natural to be defensive instead of open and humble. Hopefully learning to properly apologize will result in more thoughtful adults who are increasingly aware of the way their actions affect others.”