Being human together. Showing up for what matters.

Many years ago, friends of mine were adjusting to having their second baby at home.  They were distressed that their older child seemed to delight in hurting their newest family member.  They asked her why she kept hitting/pushing/pinching her sister.  Her reply:  “I like the sound she makes when she cries.”

One of the lessons a mother learns pretty quickly is that (a) yes even her child will transgress against others and (b) the expectation is that she will then aid her child to say sorry – and promptly!!  As kids learn all about their capacity to physically (and later verbally) impact their environment, there is no shortage to the number of times a parent may say “you need to say sorry.”

Sometimes we have some pretty strange ways of getting that precious apology to happen:

  • “You need to say sorry otherwise [insert threat of choice here]”
  • “If you say sorry, then [insert reward of choice here]”
  • “You can’t [move from there / do anything fun / etc] until you’re ready to say sorry”

Under these conditions of coercion, the child gets to “sorry” – but is this really what we’re looking for?

Of course, “sorry” isn’t a magic word.  It means nothing without emotion behind it.  What we really want is for our children to be kind, compassionate, empathic human beings.  We want them to care that they have hurt someone else, and so feel motivated to apologise.


So what does it take for a child to say “sorry” – and mean it?

  • She needs to be able to take perspective.  There are complex relational frames she needs to understand, including “If I were you, and you were me”, “If here was there and there was here”, and “if then was now, and now was then”.  You’ve had these for a long time now.  You likely don’t remember a time when you didn’t.  But once, you had to learn.  In the earlier example, this child was developmentally too young to generalise “I cry when I’m hurt” to “you cry when you’re hurt”; and “it hurts me when you hit me” to “it hurts you if I hit you”.
  • She needs to have a concept of the type of relationships she would like to have, and the type of person she would like to be (values).
  • She needs knowledge of an array of behaviours that will help her repair the relationship and take it in the direction she would like it to go.

Here are my tips for getting to “sorry” (without coercion and bribery!)

Develop your child’s sense of who he wants to be in this world

  • Have conversations with your child (at pleasant times, not in the midst of conflict!) about the type of person he would like to be; the relationships that are important to him; and the characteristics he admires in others (cartoon characters and super heroes can be good fodder for this).  Talk about the type of person you want to be; the relationships that matter to you; what you value in relationships with others.
  • Help your child develop perspective taking.  For example, when reading books or watching tv together, stop and ask her: how’s he feeling?  What about her?  What do you think he would like to happen next?  What would you want to happen next?  (Again, not just about moments of conflict).
  • Model relationship repairs.  See if you can own your own mistakes with your children, and apologise to them.

Support your child in understanding what has just happened and then help him problem-solve

Expressing anger and evoking shame are not going to help you here – your child will learn to apologise under aversive control (I escape your anger and shaming) rather than appetitive control (this gets me where I want to go).  You are older and wiser, you know far more, and can make connections much faster than your little one.  Assume the best in your child, and be their guide.

  • If your child cannot yet take the perspective of others, help him: “You just pulled her hair, and now she is crying.  Can you imagine how it would feel if someone had pulled your hair?” If your child has mastered this first step of perspective taking, move to the next level “You just pulled her hair, and now she is crying.  How do you think she’s feeling right now?”
  • Ask you child “Is that what you want her to be feeling?”, or “Is that what you intended?”, or “Does that take your relationship in the direction you want it to go?”.  It can also be helpful (then, or soon after) to help your child identify what alternative behaviours could be better used next time, for example “I get that you hit Jenny so that she’d give you your toy – but it also got in the way of you and Jenny being friends, and it makes it less likely we will do more play dates this week.  What else could you do next time you want your toy?  Let’s practice that now.”
  • Finally – assist him to see that he can repair this relationship.  Ask him “what would you like to do to get this relationship back on track?”; or “It sounds like you’re feeling pretty sorry about what happened – is there anything you’d like to do?”; or “I think it might help if you let her know you’re sorry – is that something you’d like to do now?  How can I help you do that?”

And yes, you might go through all that, and have a child that chooses not to apologise.  It’s a legitimate choice to make – and we all know adults who do just that!  Can you sit with your own discomfort whilst your child learns what happens when they make that choice?  Can you support her on that next path of discovery?

Let me know how you go!  And if you have moments when you revert to coercion instead (like me, just the other day) – offer yourself some compassion… and maybe see if you’d like to apologise too 😉

NB: Of course these conversations start simpler and evolve with your child – but it’s never too early to connect empathically with our kids and use developmentally appropriate language to start the process.

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  1. I love this post! I think teaching empathy is one of the most important lessons/life-gifts a parent can give to their child. I was surprised when as a young parent I learned that empathy needs to be taught, preferring, like many parents, to believe that it is just inherited (from ‘wonderful empathic me’). I learned that empathy we aren’t born empathic because isn’t good for the survival of the individual (e.g. the newborn), but is essential for survival in & of a group (e.g. family & society). But you say it more warmly and practically. Thanks.

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