This piece left a very deep impression on me when I read it first over a year ago. I agree completely and it hurts me when I see parents yelling at their kids to apologize. For one, if I am the person kids are forced to apologize to, I don’t need their “I’m sorry” mumbled under a threat. I feel bad for them as it is that they did something wrong and instead of being explained what that was, they are confused even further by being forced to do something they do not feel like doing, obviously, because they have no idea what even happened. I never force my daughter to apologize. I get down to her level, explain in simple words what happened, why the other child is upset, and what my daughter did that caused it. Then I apologize to that child to show that we know we did something wrong and one of us feels bad about it. Other signs that my child is already sorry is when she starts crying (she feels bad about the whole situation), or she tries to hug that other kid (she feels their pain), or offers her own toys to them (trying to make them feel better). All these gestures are even better than saying a fake “sorry”. They mean that my kid understood the situation, drew some conclusions and took some actions that, in her own world, meant she tried to fix it. And when she is old enough to verbally express her apology, she will be able to do it. Not because she is forced to, but because she knows how to and why.
“Children do not instantly absorb a situation or respond automatically as adults do. They take a little longer to digest an experience and process it. Our child is just beginning to put together what has happened, when suddenly she is enveloped in the enormous pressure emanating from her mom. “Tell the boy you’re sorry,” Mom says in a tone that makes the girl most uncomfortable. She wants to please, but forcing the words would feel completely false, and faking emotion does not come naturally to a child. It is learned.
What worries me most is the child who, because his caregiver has pushed him to always say ‘sorry,’ receives the message that apologizing fixes everything. He punches another child, but as long as he says, “I’m sorry,“ he’s excused and can move on, or even do it again. We are wrong to believe we teach empathy by forcing an insincere apology.
While we are modeling apologies, our children will teach us again and again about forgiveness. Implicitly understanding the errors of their peers, children usually forgive immediately and return to playing together. We must grant our children that same compassion. By trusting our children to develop authentic social responses, we give them the self-confidence to be the sensitive and deeply caring human beings we hope they will become.”