Giving apologies doesn’t come naturally for any of us. How can we help our children learn this essential human relations skill?
Calvin to Hobbes: “I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings. I’m sorry I did it.”
Hobbes: “Maybe you should apologize to her.”
Calvin (after thinking): “I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution” (Bill Watterson, The Essential Calvin and Hobbes, 1988).
We chuckle, but it’s all too true. An apology is the obvious next step when we’ve wronged another person. But if it’s difficult for us as adults, it can be just as difficult for our children.
Apology: the solution to our relationship wounds
A sincere, heartfelt apology is indispensable when it comes to reconciliation and restoring a relationship. It can heal hurt feelings. It can defuse anger and hostility. It can bring down emotional barriers.
Such an effective apology is more than just a terse, grudging “sorry!” As The Five Languages of Apology explains, there are five basic elements (“languages”) of apology:
- Expressing regret—“I am sorry.”
- Accepting responsibility—“I was wrong.”
- Making restitution—“What can I do to make it right?”
- Genuinely repenting—“I’ll try not to do that again.”
- Requesting forgiveness—“Will you please forgive me?” (Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas, 2006).
Apology on command?
Robert Fulghum, author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, recalled that one of the essentials “about how to live and what to do and how to be” that he learned in kindergarten was to “say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody” (1986, p. 6).
But many of us parents know that simply ordering an apology doesn’t necessarily produce one that is sincere and from the heart. So how exactly does one go about teaching a child to apologize from the heart?
It starts with example
As with so many things in parenting, our example is paramount. If our children hear excuses, defensiveness or blaming others for problems, they will more likely have difficulty learning the skill of apology. But if, on the other hand, our children hear us apologize to our mate, relatives and friends, they will be much more likely to learn to apologize themselves.
Parenting being what it is—performed by us imperfect human beings—there will no doubt be the occasional opportunity for you to apologize to your child. When this happens, sincerely say you’re sorry. While it might seem like this would diminish you in the eyes of your child, it does not have to. Your child might actually have greater respect for you.
Teaching your child responsibility is another important way to help your child learn to apologize. Little children—instinctively, it seems—take credit for the good, positive things they do. You can hear it in the “I” phrases they use: “I brushed my teeth” and “I got a smiley face on my paper.” But they avoid taking ownership of the bad. Glasses of milk seem to spill spontaneously without cause. Crayon markings on walls just suddenly appear.
We help our children greatly when we help them take responsibility.We help our children greatly when we help them take responsibility. Rephrase their statements so that they begin with “I.” (Instead of “the cookie broke,” help them say, “I broke the cookie.”) Do this even in neutral situations that aren’t right and wrong, and do it from an early age, when your children are just beginning to speak in sentences. It will help them to learn to take responsibility for their words and actions.
What we do and say affects others
In addition to owning their words and actions, children need to learn that what they say and do can affect others. They can make their mother happy, and they can make their brother sad. Learning this is important in helping them develop empathy and concern for others. Talk with them about what’s frequently called the “Golden Rule” (Matthew 7:12).
It’s important that children learn that life is full of rules—not just for them, but for adults and all people! In addition to the Golden Rule, teach them about the 10 Commandments that God has given us, the rules your family has and the rules our society gives us.
Teach them that rules are for our good. For instance, when we’re driving, it helps everyone to be safe if we follow the rules. When we disobey rules, bad things can happen. (Someone could get hurt if we didn’t stop at a stop sign!) Make sure your family’s rules are enforced lovingly and consistently.
If we’ve laid the right foundation—setting a right example and teaching our children that they must own their actions and that what they do and say can hurt others—then we can ask our children to give an apology. When they hurt a sibling or a friend, explain to them that when we hurt people, we need to say, “I’m sorry.” Your children will be well-served by learning that this is how friendships are restored.
At the same time, they can begin to learn that an apology (repentance!) is necessary when we disobey God, so that we can restore our relationship with Him.
For more about apologies that applies to all ages, see our article “How to Apologize.”