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Stop Making Your Kids Say 'Sorry'

Photograph by Twenty20

Ever since I became a parent, I have felt uncomfortable about making my kids say "sorry." Obviously, I want them to own up to their mistakes, practice kindness and learn some decent manners, but I feel that telling my kid to say "sorry" all the time is pretty pointless.

Sometimes, it feels like it's all for show or a way to make me or my child look like slightly less of a jerk. My kid pushed your kid down the slide? Oh, look, he said "sorry." I guess that proves that my kid isn’t a hellion and that I’m not an awful parent.

The bottom line is that mouthing the words "I’m sorry" is pretty vapid if there is no intent behind it. If your child doesn’t understand what mistake was made, or doesn’t feel empathy toward the child they wronged, there is really no lesson learned here. Does it make everyone feel a little more warm and fuzzy inside? Perhaps, though certainly not always! But is that the only goal here?

Mouthing the words 'I’m sorry' is pretty vapid if there is no intent behind it.

I want to raise kids who are kind not just in words but in deeds. Heather Shumaker, who wrote a book called, "It’s OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids" tends to agree. She explains that simply saying "I’m sorry" isn’t the most effective way to teach children kindness and compassion, and that when you are talking about young children (preschool age or so), it's actually not developmentally appropriate to expect them to say "sorry" and actually understand what it means.

Makes total sense when you think about it, right? Do those pristine, perfect little tykes who apologize on cue even actually know what they are saying? Are they feeling empathy, or just going through the motions?

"Young kids sometimes fool us," Shumaker writes. "They can mimic ‘sorry’ and even cry when another child cries, but most children are not capable of being sorry yet. Children differ—you may have an early bloomer—but most children simply lack the emotional and cognitive development to feel remorse. ... Expecting young kids to say ‘sorry’ teaches them nothing more than a misguided lesson in sequence: kick, say ‘sorry,’ move on."

So, then, what to do instead? Laura Markham, author of "Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Live" tells Yahoo! that it’s all about getting our kids to truly understand and acknowledge what went wrong, and then giving them actionable tasks to perform when a mistake has been made.

"Decades of research on romantic relationships shows that when one person in the couple feels forced to apologize before he or she is ready, it doesn’t help repair the relationship at all," Markham says. "We believe the same is true for children when it comes to friends and siblings."

For example, you can help your child by describing what you see: "Look, your friend is crying," or "Your friend has a boo-boo on their arm." Then, instead of just telling your child to say "I’m sorry," you can help your child come up with actionable things to remedy the situation and help his or her friend feel better. For instance, you can help your child ask their peer if they are OK and your child can be the one to get the Band-Aid or ice pack.

I will be the first to acknowledge that all children are different. I know that there are some kids out there who would have a problem doing any of those things when they are truly upset.

At times when my boys fight with each other and one of them gets hurt, they get too wound up to interact. The idea of getting them to own up to their mistakes isn’t easy at all, and it sometimes feels easier just to force them to say "I’m sorry" (whether they mean it or not) and move on with our day.

Still, I really try not to do that. When I’m stuck, I find that helping my boys write out an apology card can work wonders. Sometimes they need a few minutes away to just breathe. Other times they may punch a pillow for a few minutes. Whatever works, I let them have time to process. Eventually (usually) we are able to actually talk about what happened and understand what went wrong. Those talks are so much more meaningful than a quick (and often insincere) "sorry."

I know there are still some parents out there who will insist on making sure their children say "I'm sorry," especially if their child has physically hurt another child. But it’s all about the bigger picture. In teaching those words, we should make sure our children actually learn what those words mean and practice how to act with kindness and compassion, even when they have made a mistake.

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