One of the most embarrassing things to happen to a parent is when their child hurts another child. We are instantly mortified and the child will pick up on this dismay before they can even understand how they feel about it. Then we really hope our child will apologise and just say “I’m sorry.” Those two words will make everything better and help us save face with the parent of the victim.
The child, however, is struggling to understand how they managed to make the other child fall over.
Children don’t understand or respond to things as quickly as adults do. It takes them a little longer to fully absorb and process the situation. They might only just be understanding what has happened when they begin feeling immense pressure from their parent. Their parent tells them to apologise and talk in a way that makes them uncomfortable. They want to do what their parent says but they also don’t want to lie. They don’t feel the emotion to apologise truthfully and children are unable to fake their emotions like that. It’s a learned skill that takes time.
Over the years I’ve heard countless forced apologies. I understand why the parent wants their child to apologise but they always make me as uncomfortable as the child. To apologise and mean it requires empathy and empathy is something that develops at a different rate for each child. The child is likely not at a stage in their development where they are able to understand why they must apologise, much less mean it.
The really troubling part of all this is that children receive the message that merely saying sorry is enough to remedy every situation. They feel they can punch another child as long as they say they are sorry. They can move on to do it again if they want to. It is false assumption that forcing an apology creates empathy.
So what should you do if your child hurts someone?
If your child tends to act out when they get tired or frustrated then you should stay close to them so you can get in the way before someone gets hurt. Tell the child firmly that you won’t let them hit and then create a boundary between the children using your hands. You may have to go as far as to restrain them. If you don’t react in time and someone gets hurt you should apologise to the parent and child yourself and take your child away as it’s time to go home. When children act out and get violent they generally do so deliberately as a sign that they feel out of control and need you to intervene. You can’t expect them to suddenly change their mood, feel remorse, and apologise.
If the child is old enough to understand how to apologise properly and they accidentally harm another child then don’t tell them to apologise. Acknowledge what happens and wait for them to respond. Be a model of the behaviour you want them to follow.
There are sometimes better ways to remedy the situation than apologising. When you trust the child to act on their own they may come up with one of these gestures by themselves. This is something like patting the other child on the back after they collide in a sport, or offering the other child one of their toys, or grabbing a towel to clean up a spill. All of these actions are born from true empathy.
If you want a child to be honest in their apologies then you have to be patient and wait for them to do so. Toddlers worry a lot about greeting people and saying goodbye properly, as well as sharing and saying thank you, but nothing compares to the words “I’m sorry”. If you want the child to genuinely feel they made a mistake and make amends then you have to have the patience to let them do it on their own.
Parents set the most powerful example of what it means to be human to their children. We teach them to be sorry by being sorry ourselves. Children need to hear their parents apologise. They need to understand that people are not perfect. Apologising to a child and admitting you made a mistake gives them permission to also make mistakes.
While we teach our children how to apologise they are also teaching us how to forgive. Children implicitly understand mistakes and will almost always forgive someone immediately and just get back to playing. We must show this compassion to our children. When we trust our children to develop their own authentic social responses they gain the self-confidence to be sensitive, caring people. Something we all hope they will be.