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Do You and Your Kids Know How to Apologize?

Lori Freson

Responsibilities & Values

What is an apology? According to it is “a written or spoken expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.” Most often, we associate the words “I’m sorry” with what it means to apologize. After all, isn’t it what we all wait to hear when we feel we have been wronged?

While it is true that one must feel sorry in order for an apology to be sincere, perhaps we have placed too much emphasis on the words and not enough on the meaning. As parents, we are programming our children from the youngest age to “say I’m sorry” whenever they’ve done something wrong. But when the words become rote, like saying, “bless you” when someone sneezes, they become devoid of any meaning at all. When the words are uttered, it is insincere; the person is just saying what they know they are supposed to say.

So how can we raise children that are aware of their own mistakes and empathetic towards others’ feelings? Wouldn’t we rather have children that are willing to own up to what they’ve done wrong and actually be sincere when they do apologize? Even if this means that sometimes, they might not apologize, because they might not actually feel sorry. I believe it is more important to teach our children right from wrong than to teach them to utter meaningless words on command.

What does this mean to us as adults, and what do we need to do differently in order to foster this? Well, for starters, we must model the type of behavior we want to instill in our children. This is much easier said than done. We also have to gently guide our children morally and ethically, and even spiritually to be good people.

Here are some tips for how to model and instill the tools necessary for a true apology.

  1. Apologize to your children and others frequently. You are not perfect, and you are not above needing to apologize. When your kids see that you feel bad about whatever you’ve said or done, they will be more likely to follow suit.
  2. Don’t apologize unless you really mean it. When you do, it is not enough to simply say, “I’m sorry”. You need to say what you are sorry for and why you are sorry about it.
    1. Example: “I am sorry I yelled at you earlier. I am very tired today, and I got frustrated and aggravated, and I ran out of patience. I know that it hurt your feelings, and I know that I need to work on that so it does not happen again. I was wrong, and don’t like hurting you. I will try very hard not to do that again.”
  3. When your child does something wrong, don’t just say that it is wrong… you need to explain why it is wrong.
    1. Example: “Your brother worked very long and hard building that Lego creation. When you walked over and knocked it down and broke it, I imagine he felt very sad, angry, and frustrated. Can you imagine what they must have felt like? Has anything like that ever happened to you? Do you remember how it felt? I hope that you feel sorry for what you’ve done and that you will talk to your brother about it when you’re ready.”
  4. Sometimes, kids have trouble articulating their feelings. Ask them to write on a piece of paper what they did wrong and why it was wrong. I have done this with my own children. You will be amazed at what they write. It can be profound and powerful.
  5. If they’ve damaged or broken property of any kind, yours or someone else’s, make them replace it or pay for it. Again, it is not enough just to say I’m sorry. Kids may need to do “jobs” to earn or pay back money, but don’t let them off the hook. When you hit my car, you won’t be off the hook either. It teaches them to “right” their own “wrongs”.
  6. Don’t force the apology. Sometimes people really aren’t sorry, and other times they need some time before they are ready to apologize. Honor that.

When all is said and done, you want to raise your children to become compassionate, moral, and ethical individuals. They should think before they act about how their actions might affect others. You want them to speak honestly and from the heart, not by rote. They should say what they mean and mean what they say. And so should you.

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Lori Freson

Lori Freson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Southern California. She has been working in the mental health field since 1997, and has been a licensed therapist since 2002. Lori currently works in her own thriving private practice in Encino and Sherman Oaks, where she serves the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles areas.