“Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” sang Elton John, and he wasn’t wrong. Why are so many people unable to say that one little word? Five letters. Two syllables. It should trip off the tongue the way “hello” does. But often, it doesn’t. In fact, you probably know a person who never seems to apologize for any mistake — and if they do, it’s with such agony and turmoil, you’d think they were ripping their own tongue out.
“Many people equate their behavior with their character,” explains Vena M. Davis, licensed clinical social worker. “They think if they do something good, they are a good person… If they do something bad, they are a bad person. If they do something that hurts your feelings, they are someone who hurts others.”
This applies to kids as well as adults — but as parents, we can do something about that. “Learning that mistakes are inevitable and that our significance as a person is not based solely on our behaviors is a great kick-off to an important conversation about apology,” says Davis.
Here’s what we should bear in mind when teaching our kids how to say they’re sorry — and mean it.
Start early — just not too early
Before we teach a child to apologize, we need to be sure they are able to understand the perspectives of others. “By age 3 or 4, children can acknowledge others’ ideas. By age 5, children have the ability to imagine and anticipate consequences and the capacity to understand the purpose and need for saying sorry when their behaviors result in rule-breaking or hurting others,” says Dr. Mayra Mendez, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Having said that, it’s never too early to start the groundwork with our kids. “Birth to age 3 provides a critical time for the young brain to develop consciousness of social rules, norms and expectations,” says Mendez. “The foundation established during the early stages of brain development allows for gradual emotional growth and feelings identification, labels and projection. Development is a fluid and individualized process, but on average, children have the capacity to feel genuinely sorry as early as the preschool years.”
Modeling is key
Kids learn from their environment what a healthy relationship is, and their parents are their main teachers. “When we have done something that has hurt or offended someone, it is important to reflect on how our actions were not in alignment with our goal in the relationship,” says Davis. “It is important to go back to that person that we care about to complete the repair (i.e., apology) in order to mend the relationship.” All parents have moments with their kids they wish they could go back and do differently. Of course, that’s impossible, but what is possible is apologizing to the child.
Identify the what & why
A hollow apology is no better than the complete absence of an apology. “The most important thing to get across is sincerity,” says Davis. “Modeling a sincere apology to your child will help them in their ability to apologize to the people in their world.”
Davis offers a tip: Identify what you are sorry for and why you are sorry for it. Something like, “I’m sorry for yelling at you yesterday. I know when I yell, it makes you feel sad. I don’t like yelling at you because I love you.” Then chat with your kid about it if there’s more to chat about, and feel free to circle back to the thing that was upsetting in the first place (e.g., chores, sibling rivalry, etc.) to try to problem-solve.
To help your child understand the difference between a sincere apology and a forced apology, Davis suggests framing the situation as if they were in the shoes of the person who was offended by their action. For example, “How would you feel if Jason snatched the toy out of your hand while you were playing with it? Do you think Jason feels sad/mad/scared? What do you think about saying sorry for snatching the toy out of his hand?”
“Identifying cause (e.g., snatching the toy from Jason) and effect (e.g., Jason feels sad/mad/scared) as well as chatting about appropriate social graces will teach the child how to have and maintain rich, meaningful relationships with the people who are special to them,” says Davis.
FYI, your kid needs to actually be sorry
Forcing a child to apologize when they don’t empathize teaches the wrong lesson: that apologies have no meaning. “Empathy is dismissed when apologies have no value,” says Mendez. “When the words ‘I’m sorry’ are said without authenticity, responsibility for the hurtful action is evaded. Delivering a meaningless apology undermines respect for the other person.”
We live in a world where, too often, the most powerful, influential people never apologize even when they do seriously crappy things. Show your kid that there’s a better way to be.