Monday, November 14, 2011

"I'm Sorry": Teaching Our Children to Apologize

This past Saturday the girls and I spent the afternoon with their cousins at the Pumpkin Patch, a playground on Signal Mountain.  Everyone was taking turns sliding down this incredibly fast slide when my three-year-old ran smack into the back of her two-year-old cousin.  Now she didn't hit him very hard, but poor tired Robbie cried, and Kate just stood and stared at him.   

"You slid into Robbie and hurt his finger.  See how he's crying?  You need to go over to him and apologize.  You need to say, 'I'm sorry,'" I told her.

"Mommy, you do it," Kate said.

"No, Mommy didn't hurt Robbie.  You did.  You need to make it right and apologize," I continued.

Kate walked over to Robbie, who was sitting in his Mommy's lap with big fat croccodile tears streaming down his cheeks.  But nothing came out of her mouth.  She just stood and stared.

"What do you have to say to Robbie, Kate?" I asked.

She just shrugged and Robbie said, "I'm sorry."  Sweet boy.

At this point, frustrated and uncertain about what to do next, I recalled what our Sunday school teacher had mentioned in class a few weeks ago about teaching our children things they aren't quite capable of comprehending.  He told a story about his daughter and grandsons: the older child (5) had hit his younger brother (2), and the mother was instructing the older boy to apologize to his brother.  Our teacher explained his feelings that a child that young--a five-year-old boy--could not possibly understand what it means to actually be sorry for something and therefore should not be instructed by his parent to apologize.

At the time, my teacher's story and explanation really caught my attention because we have taught Kate to say "I'm sorry" since she was two, the time when we knew she had a pretty clear understanding of the difference between right and wrong.  I began to worry that what we had done was wrong.  And now, as I insisted that she apologize to her crying cousin, was I trying to force her to do something that she is not fully capable of grasping?

Uncertain what to do, I apologized to Robbie for my daughter, warned Kate that she needed to wait before sliding until the person ahead of her was off the slide, and let her continue playing.

But my decision didn't sit well.  I knew she knew that what she had done was wrong, but (1) her pride, coupled with (2) her shyness in social situations, especially when she's being disciplined, kept her from doing what she needed to do, what she should have done. 

So when, not five minutes later, she slid into her poor little cousin AGAIN, I was all over her like white on rice.  Kate looked at me with dread because this time she knew I meant business.

"Tell Robbie you're sorry.  Give him a hug and apologize for hurting him," I said.

No movement.  My strong-willed child just looked at me, waiting for an ultimatum.

"If you disobey me, then you will be punished: we will leave the playground this minute," I said to her.

With her head held low, my daughter walked over to her cousin, who was now on his Mama's back in the baby carrier, and attempted to hug him.

"I'm sorry, Robbie," she said. 

Did she apologize solely because she feared the consequences, leaving the fun playground?  Probably.

Did she realize that she had done wrong by hurting her cousin?  Most certainly!

Was I expecting too much of her by asking her to apologize?  I honestly believe that I did not.

I believe my children need to learn--as soon as they are able to discern right from wrong, as soon as they feel guilty and conscious-stricken when they hurt or offend someone--to ask for forgiveness and say, "I'm sorry."

Yes, there are times when children will abuse the "I'm sorry" phrase by immediately apologizing as soon as they've done something they now is wrong in hopes of getting out of the punishment.  Yes, young children may not understand what it truly means to be sorry.  But if we don't get them in the habit of saying "I'm sorry" when they've made a mistake, when we don't teach them to have compassion or empathy for others that they've upset, then we deprive them of an essential life lesson: forgiveness.  And if our children are unable to say "I'm sorry" or ask for forgiveness, then how can we ever expect them to obey God who has forgiven us, the worst of sinners?

"Bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you."

Colossians 3:13

What are your thoughts?  At what age did you begin teaching your children to say, "I'm sorry"?  


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  1. I agree with you. My 4-year old triplets sometimes refuse to apologize primarily due to their pride - as you pointed out. We resort to ultimatums, but it works and sometimes we find them apologizing without our prompting. We have been teaching them to say "I'm Sorry" from when they were 2 years old. They started speaking late, so we taught them to touch their victims heads to indicate that they were sorry.

  2. We've worked hard to instill in our children that being sorry isn't necessarily a FEELING. It is the knowledge that you have wronged someone and the determination to make it right. Our feelings often follow the action. So I agree with you!!!

  3. We've been teaching our 2yo to say "I'm sorry" for hurting people. I know he doesn't fully understand, but I want him to get in the habit NOW. We also have him include the action. Like, he'll tell his brother "Sorry hitting, Bean." (Sorry for hitting, Bean)
    I recently included making him pray for his brother when he hurts him. Now he does it on his own. No, I can't always understand the prayers (mumbling...and today there was something about peanuts) but I know God understands.

  4. @ sheensteve, I kind of think you have to begin with ultimatums, but hopefully, like you said, they will begin to apologize without them. It has to become habit first. Thanks!

    I agree with you, Kasey, and like how you phrased that: "the determination to make it right." Thanks for your insights.

    What a great idea about praying for the person we hurt, Kasondra. I really like that.

  5. I agree with you. They understand much more than we usually give them credit for. My 2 year old knows very well when she has done something wrong. She may not always feel sorry, let alone repentant, but like another commenter said, often feelings follow actions!

    This reminds me of some other things I have been doing with the kids along that same line of thought. For example, when the older boys argue, I just say "arguing!" in a sing-song voice and they have to stop and say "I love you too much to argue, ." They just argue about everything lately, so it's not like there's any conflict going on other than plain old contentiousness. But it's all I can do to not start cracking up when I hear them say that! Especially when they do it without my prompting. :D