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“Say you’re sorry.”

Often this demand gets a sullen, head-down “Sorry” that just doesn’t seem very sincere.  It makes an apology seem more like a formality and something that’s done just because it’s demanded.  Requiring a child “say you’re sorry” doesn’t seem helpful to the child saying it or very satisfying for the person on the receiving end.

The whole point of making an apology is to smooth over a problem and to re-learn how you should’ve behaved to begin with. If children apologize just by mumbling, “I’m sorry,” nothing is gained. Worse, the child may come to think that any misbehavior can be solved with minimal effort on his part.

So making a good apology is an important part of what you teach your child about right and wrong. As with most things, kids will learn how to apologize best from watching you. So follow these guidelines when you apologize to your kids or to other people, and teach your children to follow your example.

A good apology is made this way:

  1. Make eye contact with the person you’re apologizing to.
  2. Include what you are apologizing for. Say, “I’m sorry I broke your toy.”
  3. Apologize for what you did, not for what the person you offended did. Don’t say, “I’m sorry you got upset,” since that means you’re not really sorry for what you did but for the reaction it got.
  4. If you want, explain how you made your mistake, but keep it short and keep it centered on your own error. You could say, “I should’ve been more careful” but not, “You should’ve put it further back on the shelf.”
  5. Remember that it is the person you offended who gets to gauge the level of offence. Be careful not to dismiss your error as not a big deal. Children sometimes treasure drawings and trinkets way more than seems reasonable to us adults (and we adults sometimes value things way more than seems reasonable to kids). At the same time, there’s no point in giving an audience to melodrama. Part of the teaching here involves how to react appropriately when one is the victim as well as when one is the perpetrator.
  6. Don’t demand forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift, not a social nicety. It’s not right for you to require that the victim say, “That’s okay” or “I forgive you.” At times when your child is the one receiving an apology, do not prompt her to say “that’s okay.”

The ability to make a good apology is a key skill. Since we all make mistakes, you’ll want to remember to teach it. Remember that modeling is important here and then explicit guidance as situations requiring apologies come up.

You’ll feel great the first time your child makes a sincere apology. This will be a proud moment for both of you.