The best way to teach children to apologize

Children need to learn that apologies have value only if they are truly meant, felt and honest.

A sorry note (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A sorry note
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
During these holy days of reflection on how we treat others, it makes sense to think about how we teach children the benefits of showing remorse and how to express it. Teaching children the meaning and use of apologies is a good place to start.
It is important that children learn not only the phrase “I’m sorry,” but also what it means. Begin by explaining what hurting someone means.
There are three basic ways for children to understand hurting, whether it’s physical, emotional or relating to property. Spend as much time as you can teaching them at the earliest possible age that hurting another person is wrong, by hurting his body in any way, by making him feel sad with words, or by taking or breaking his things without permission. These are not easy lessons and require time. Even adults sometimes have trouble understanding that they might have hurt others.
Children need to learn the value of empathy, and that apologies are among the best ways to express these feelings. Teach the value of saying “I’m sorry” for hurting another, and of respect for others’ feelings.
However, like most of the things we teach children, apologies can be misused. Care must be taken to avoid the following misuses of an apology: • If the child who gives the apology doesn’t think he did anything wrong, he gives a false apology.
This leads to feelings of resentment, humiliation and a need to show his true feelings.
• “I’m sorry, and tomorrow, when we are alone, I’ll show you how sorry I really am!” The original problem often grows worse. Too many of our politicians apologize this way, and we hate listening to them.
• The child who receives the false apology can easily tell if an apology is real or not. I hate false apologies.
Children do too. How do you feel when you hear an “I’m sorry” that is obviously insincere? • Children might learn they can do what they want as long as they say “I’m sorry.” Here’s an example: – Mother: “Ari, pick up those toys that you threw on the floor.”
– Ari: “I’m sorry.” But Ari still doesn’t clean up the toys.
– Mother: “I said pick up the toys.”
– Ari: “I said I was sorry. What more do you want?”
This type of conversation covers behaviors of older children, as well as those of younger ones – including hitting, pushing, not cleaning their room, taking a sibling’s toy, and a host of offensive behaviors. These problems can be overcome by a change in how parents approach apologies. Try saying one of these, especially to young children: “If you are truly sorry, the best way to show how you feel is by saying you’re sorry and really meaning it. If you are not sorry, don’t pretend you are.”
You can choose to talk with the child and share how each of you feel. It’s important to hear his side of the story, as it is for him to hear your side. Say: “If you are not ready or are unwilling to work things out together, you can do something nice before the end of the day for the person you hurt. If you are too angry to do that right now, you can help in a different way. What are you willing to do?” When children use apologies to avoid taking responsibility, say, “I’m glad you’re sorry about what you just did. That’s the first step in improving your behavior. However, saying you’re sorry is just empty words if they are not followed by action. You can prove how sorry you are by cleaning up the toys that you threw all over the room.”
Avoid power struggles. Sometimes, asking a child to apologize can explode into a much bigger issue. If your child refuses to apologize after you have asked him to do so, it is very easy to escalate your request into a demand.
If your child gives in, he might associate apologies with a loss of power and control. Future apologies will be less forthcoming. If your child is defiant or you become defiant, then a power struggle will result. No matter who prevails, no one wins. The issue is no longer about remorse – it’s about control. If your child refuses to apologize, ask him to think about why or why not, and talk with him later. Provide options other than the apology.
Teaching children to apologize is one of the most important social skills. However, it’s not the words that matter. What really matters is the integrity of the words. Children need to learn that apologies have value only if they are truly meant, felt and honest.
In addition, we must never let children think that an apology is enough when they do something wrong.
Apologies are not manipulations to get kids off the hook for being irresponsible.
Of course, the best way to teach these important values is for us to use apologies with integrity. 
The writer is a frequent contributor to the Post. He is the director of the graduate program for teaching children with behavior disorders at David Yellin College and the author of 20 books related to behavior.