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Breaking The Cycle: Why Forced Apologies Can Reinforce Bad Behavior

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Why Making Your Child Say ‘I’m Sorry’ May Create a Cycle of Misbehaviour

Apologizing is an important life skill that helps people take responsibility for their actions and repair relationships. Simply making a child say “I’m sorry” may not be an effective strategy for teaching them about apology and remorse. In fact, it can even have the opposite effect and undermine the intended purpose of the apology.

Often children are made to say “I’m sorry” without being taught about the implications of what they are apologizing for. Some children learn that saying “I’m sorry” means no further obligations are necessary and the issue is finished. The slate is wiped clean. Without really being sorry, they are free to repeat the same kind of misbehaviour. They will just need to repeat the ‘I’m sorry’ again. 

Making a child say “I’m sorry” without them understanding why it’s important or feeling remorse, can seem fake and meaningless to the child. They may see it as something they have to do, instead of a way to take responsibility for their actions and make things right. This can make them resentful and not understand the importance of apologizing.

Saying “I’m sorry” without understanding why it’s necessary or how to fix the problem can prevent a child from learning empathy and how their actions affect others. We want to teach them to care about others and understand the principles of kindness, respect, fairness, and honesty. Children need to understand why their behavior was hurtful and how they can make it right.

Parents can encourage those principles by settin clear and fair rules that reflect caring. For example, ‘Hands are for hugging, not hitting.’ It also helps to enforce rules with immediate, reasonable, logical consequences that reinforce the idea of caring, for example, by having your child provide care to the person they hurt.

Young children may not understand the meaning of “I’m sorry” and may not truly be sorry. Saying “I’m sorry” without understanding the reason and consequences of their actions can lead to the child seeing it as a way to avoid responsibility for their choices.

Strategies & Tips for ways to make amends & understand about caring:

  1. Encourage your son to take responsibility for his actions by explaining the impact of his behavior on others and discussing ways to make amends.  For example, if your son hits his brother, you could sit down with him and explain how his behavior hurts his brother. You could then ask your son to come up with ways to make amends to their sibling, such as saying sorry (and really meaning it), giving them a hug, or helping them with something they were doing. You could also discuss with your son the importance of thinking before acting, and how his actions can affect others. This will encourage him to take responsibility for his actions and understand the impact of his behavior on others.
  2. Model empathy and remorse in your own behavior by apologizing sincerely when you make a mistake and working to make things right.  Let your son see how you handle conflict resolution and how important it is to take responsibility for your actions. This can help instill the values of accountability, honesty, and empathy in your child. For example, if you snap at your son and later realize that you overreacted, you can approach him and say, “I am sorry for the way I spoke to you earlier. I was frustrated, but that is no excuse for my behavior. Can you forgive me?” By showing genuine remorse and making an effort to make amends, you are setting a positive example for your child and helping to teach him important life skills.
  3. Help him understand the perspective of others by encouraging him to put himself  in the other person’s shoes and consider how his actions might have affected them.  For example, if your son takes another child’s toy without asking, you could ask him to think about how it would feel if someone took his favorite toy without asking. You could then encourage him to make things right with the other child. This helps your son understand the impact of his actions and develop empathy for others.
  4. Use “I” statements to help your boy express his feelings in a way that acknowledges the harm he caused.  For example, instead of saying “you made me angry,” encourage him to say “I feel angry when you do that.”
  5. Give your son opportunities to practice empathy and remorse through role-playing and other interactive activities. For example, if he has trouble understanding the impact of his actions on others, role-play with him where he is put in different situations and asked to react in a way that shows empathy and remorse. You can also encourage him to engage in interactive activities that help him understand and practice empathy and remorse. For instance, he can play a board game where the child has to make decisions that affect other players and then reflect on the outcome. This helps him understand the impact of his actions on others and teaches him to take responsibility for his actions. Another option could be to have a family discussion where everyone shares their feelings and experiences. This helps him understand how others feel and how his actions can affect others. By encouraging empathy and remorse through interactive activities and discussions, you can help your son develop healthy relationships and become a responsible and empathetic person.
  6. Encourage children to think about how they can prevent similar situations in the future and come up with specific solutions or strategies to avoid similar mistakes. For example, if your son has been arguing with his siblings frequently, you can sit down with him and ask him to think about what triggers the arguments and what he could do to avoid them. You can then help guide him in developing a strategy, such as taking deep breaths, counting to 10, or walking away from the situation. You can encourage your son to practice using these strategies in real-life situations and provide positive reinforcement when he uses them successfully. This approach helps him take responsibility for his behaviour and develop skills to prevent similar problems in the future.
  7. Provide positive reinforcement for children’s efforts to make amends and understand the impact of their actions on others. For example, if your son has broken a neighbor’s window while playing outside when told not to play ball in the yard, instead of simply punishing him, encourage him to approach the neighbor and offer to help pay for the damages and clean up the mess. Afterward, acknowledge that might have been uncomfortable or difficult for him to do but that it was very important that he take responsibility for his actions and make amends. Reinforce that accidents happen and that it is being very responsible to find ways to help fix the problem.
  1. Show children how to apologize authentically by acknowledging the harm they caused, making amends and making a plan for how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. It’s important to note that apologizing authentically requires a genuine effort from the child, so make sure to let your son know that you believe he can do it and that it’s important for him to take responsibility for his actions.
  1. Help children understand the importance of forgiveness and how it can help repair relationships and move forward after mistakes have been made. Here is an example of a parent talking with their son:                                                                                                       “Son, have you ever made a mistake and hurt your friend’s feelings? Sometimes it’s hard to fix what happened and feelings are still strong. That’s where forgiveness comes in. Forgiveness is about letting go of those negative feelings and choosing to move forward in a positive way.  Forgiveness is a big part of being a kind and responsible person. It’s important to take responsibility for our actions, find ways to make things right when we make a mistake, and forgive others when they make mistakes. That way, we can all work together to build strong, healthy relationships.”

Small Steps, Big Impact: Easy Ways for Your Son to Make Amends

  • When tears have been shed, have the child who caused the tears get the tissues and have them wipe the tears, etc.
  • Ask the distressed child what would make them feel better ~ a hug, a drink of water, a book….and have the child who instigated the problem do that.
  • If the child has destroyed something – block building, a drawing – have them try and recreate it for the other child.
  • If the children are a bit older (kindergarten and older) you could have the children sit together and discuss the issue and see if they could resolve it themselves, and then share the outcome with you. (the idea of the Peace Table comes from Montessori)
  • Older children can be asked to write out an apology to give to the other child. Be sure to make check that the letter includes the incident and how your child feels and what they will do so that it doesn’t happen again. (younger children could draw the hurt child a picture to give to them the next time)
  • Use books, puppets, videos that reinforce the values you are working on. 
  • As children get a bit older you can emphasize the impact that the behavior has had on the other child. Then give the child the opportunity to respond positively and repair the wrong.
  • When your child hits, gently but firmly take his hand and show him how to softly touch the other person in the same spot he had hit. “We don’t hit. It doesn’t feel good. Hitting hurts. When you touch like this, it feels good.” Young children are learning how to socialize. Sometimes they are simply making contact. There is no intent to hurt, just connect. When they get a bit older they may lash out in anger while they are learning how to self-regulate their emotions.

An apology is a sincere expression of regret for wronging someone, accompanied by finding a way to make amends. It is an important life skill because it demonstrates humility, empathy, and a willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions. Apologizing can repair damaged relationships, build trust, and promote growth and understanding. By acknowledging our mistakes and offering a heartfelt apology, we show that we value and respect others and ourselves, and strive to live in a harmonious world. By educating our young sons on the essence of a true apology, rather than merely insisting they recite “I’m sorry,” we are instilling in them a solid foundation for building meaningful relationships.

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