When a child's behavior annoys, or hurts another, one often hears the adult on the scene instruct the offender to "Say you're sorry." Yet, at times, the seeming offender is in his or her mind, retaliating for an earlier injury received from the supposed victim.
It is a common reaction to feel that a child must be chastised and corrected in order to be taught appropriate social behavior. And our goal is to help children learn how to express how they feel about something in a way that does not hurt or offend someone else. The question is whether being made to apologize helps children learn what we want to teach.
In a recent book, "Why Won't You Apologize," psychologist Harriet Lerner discusses apologies that are meaningless, namely those that are self-excusing, and what a meaningful apology involves. She writes that the hurt party wants us to listen to their feelings, to validate their reality and to feel genuine regret and remorse.
But how does it feel to have to say you are sorry if you feel that you are the one who was wronged? Whether you were actually wronged is not the point. Feeling that way and being made to apologize just means that your side of the story has not been heard or understood, so now you feel doubly wronged. If a child complies under duress, neither the cause of the conflict or a better way to resolve such conflicts has been addressed.
An apology empty of genuine feeling is quite meaningless. To mean it requires empathy -- the ability to know and identify with how the other person feels. Empathy develops as children mature. We play an important part in that development by helping children become aware of the feelings of others. But first, we have to show empathy for their feelings. Adults will say, "How do you think it made him feel when you did that?" But a child whose own feelings have not been addressed is not ready to think about how someone else feels. It is by understanding and clarifying for our children what they themselves are feeling that they can begin to identify with what others might be feeling.
Insisting that a child apologize as a means of reparation for behavior he thinks was justified simply says to him that you are taking the other child's side. Since the apology is not sincere, the message is that using empty words is the way to gloss over conflict.
Conflicts between children arise because children have not yet mastered social interactions and negotiating conflict. They also have not yet mastered the control of their emotions necessary to express feelings in words rather than physically.
We can help by clarifying for a child what it was that happened. "You were angry because he took the toy you were playing with." Or, "You wanted her to play the game your way." In that way, we both acknowledge our own child's feelings and make a connection between the feeling and the way it was expressed. Having acknowledged the feeling, we can now talk about better ways to express it.
But the next step is to help children figure out how to resolve the conflict. A problem with the empty apology is that it doesn't teach children how to do that -- which is really what they need to learn. Whether it is by sharing, taking turns, or compromising on the rules of the game, they often need the help of an adult while learning.
"I'm sorry," sometimes may be useful to say last, but almost never, first.
-- Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.