Should We Force Our Children to Apologize?
There is a scene that I have watched play out so many times that I think i've reached the point that it literally makes my hair stand on end. It is the well meaning parent determinedly forcing their child to apologize to someone for...what ever. It goes like this:
"Johnny, tell (insert injured party of your choice here) that you're sorry for (insert affront of your choice here i.e. hitting, punching, kicking, spitting on, biting, cussing at, stealing from, pushing down etc. here).
For arguments sake, let's say Grandma was the victim and spitting was the crime.
"Johnny, tell Grandma you're sorry for spitting on her!" "NO!!"
"Say you're sorry!!" "NO!!"
"I mean it! Right now! Say you're sorry!" "NO!!"
"Say you're sorry or you're having a time out when we get home!" "NO!!"
"Say you're sorry or I'm not going to let you play with your motocycles for the rest of the day!"
At this point Johnny gives a snarling apology to his embarrased grandmother and Mommy gasps with pride. "THANK YOU, JOHNNY! GOOD JOB!!"
I always wonder what the parent thinks they have accomplished at this point and if they have any idea what they just taught their child. They use these apologies in the place of actual discipline or real consequences--a forced apology is a parenting cop-out.
Don't get me wrong. Children should be taught to apologize. As parents we should set an example even at the earliest age. Before my children were old enough to apologize for their actions on their own, I would apologize FOR them IN FRONT of them. I always have apologized TO them when I ought to, and I gave them the words to apologize when they were learning about social interaction. If one of my toddler daughters got too rambunctious and bounced a block off of my head while we were playing, I would let my face fall so she could see that I was hurt and as I rubbed my owie I would say "Uh-oh...sorry, Mommy. Uh-oh...sorry, Mommy. Inevitably, the block thrower would toddle over and help with the head rubbing, while parotting my words.."Uh-oh...sorry Mommy.
Actual Effects Of A Forced Apology
1) It Teaches The Child To Lie. In a nutshell, a forced apology teaches a child that it's OK to say things you don't mean in order to accomplish an objective. This is a dangerous lesson.
2) The Child Doesn't Learn To Feel Empathy For Others. Empathy is a necessary component in any SINCERE apology and, in my opinion, a necessary part of the emotional makeup of any decent human being. When the focus of a conflict simply becomes the apology, rather than the effect the original behavior had on another individual, the lesson is lost. Many times I've seen the teenage and young adult versions of these children and they have a disturbing sense of entitlement regarding the feelings of those around them. They have been taught to believe that regardless of the harm their behavior has caused another person, once they utter their magical "Oh, sorry", the wronged individual no longer has any right to anger or hurt feelings and MUST instantly forgive the offender and get over it. If there are lingering hard feelings they then cast themselves as victims "I SAID I was sorry!!". Not only are these individuals no fun to be around, but they also suffer in their personal relationships--for obvious reasons.
3) It Encourages Negative Behavior.Instead of teaching children that bad behavior results in negative consequenses, the habit of forcing apologies teaches them that they have sort of a revolving get out of jail free card. They do what they want, say sorry, then go about their business. They learn that their parents will bargain with them for their behavior. Not good.
What Should A Parent Do Instead Of Forcing A Child To Apologize?
First--set a good example. Apologize to your child and to others in front of your child when it is warranted. Second, focus on the feelings of the injured party and talk to your child about it RIGHT THEN IN THE MOMENT. If they have inadvertently hurt someone then make a big deal about the the other persons feelings/injury--"Oh no, poor Sally. Are you OK? Johnny, that really hurt Sally...etc." then I always followed this with, "Johnny, it's best to say you're sorry when you hurt someone." And leave it at that. If they deliberately hurt someone, all of the above applies but punishment or a consequence or whatever you choose to call it follows immediately.
Always remember that a forced apology is never a substitute for discipline.
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