Say you’re Sorry, and mean it too

Saying “Sorry” doesn’t count if you don’t mean it. Everyone knows that.

So why do we force our kids to say they are sorry?

You’ve done it. I’ve done it. We all know people who do it. Everybody means well, of course, but if we’re being honest, we all know it doesn’t count.

A few days ago I was at the park and as I watched from a not-so-comfy bench, a two year old boy pushed my kid off her purple plastic dinosaur. It was a short distance to the ground so she didn’t cry and I didn’t rush over. The mother of the pusher-and-shover, on the other hand, flew across the park. “Say you’re sorry,” she demanded. He kicked the bark a few times and then turned to climb the dinosaur. His mother pulled him back and with a quick speech about being nice, she gave him an ultimatum: “Say you’re sorry, or we are going home.”

Drum roll . . .

He said sorry. And he was so sorry that he did it again five minutes later and his mom dragged him off to the car kicking and screaming. Fun day at the park.

In my experience, there are two reasons for the “Say you’re Sorry” syndrome so common on the playground. 

First, adults want to teach kids lessons. It is not okay to hurt other people. When we do hurt other people, whether intentionally or not, we should be sorry. Or at least that’s the way we think it goes. So we tell kids to apologize. That’s how they learn, we say.

But all a kid really learns when they’ve been forced into saying sorry is that if you say the right word then you can get mom and dad off your back for a few minutes. They haven’t felt remorse. They haven’t been given tools to express themselves appropriately and solve problems without violence. They haven’t recognized the emotions that caused the hurt. And they certainly haven’t learned anything that will help prevent similar hurts from happening over and over again.

That forced sorry when they are 5 will turn into the scrawled apology sans insurance information left on that car they just smashed in the parking lot when they are 25.  And they’ll sleep easy that night, despite the smashed bumper, because, uh, “I said I was sorry, didn’t I?”

Kids don’t need to be taught lessons, they need good examples and helpful tools for solving problems. Imagine if the mother I encountered at the park had known what tools to give her son instead of trying to bandaid the problem with a quick “sorry.”

  • The child might have felt remorse if his mother had explained that pushing hurts, that when he pushed it made someone else hurt and feel sad. Even very young kids know what it means to feel hurt, to feel sad. 
  •  If his mother had acknowledged the frustration or anger that incited pushing, the child might have also gained new emotional intelligence skills to help navigate similar feelings in the future. 
  • The child might even  have learned how to avoid pushing if his mother had offered him alternatives to pushing – asking for help, asking for a turn, voicing frustration.

    The second reason for the “Say you’re Sorry” syndrome is embarrassment. It’s awkward when your kid hurts another kid. Even if it’s your child hurting their own sibling, no one wants to be that parent with the aggressive mean kid.  You want your kid to adhere to social norms because it is less embarrassing, less awkward, and if you force your kid to say sorry maybe the injured person’s mother won’t yell at you and you won’t have to feel like a lousy parent.  
    But the alternative to not squeezing a fake sorry out of your kid doesn’t have to be social outcast status.  When my child is the cause of a hurt, on the playground or at home, I apologize.  It’s not forced or fake.  I say, “I am so sorry this happened. I am so sorry you are hurt.”  I mean it.  And my kids can see that I mean it and they can observe how saying sorry can help make a bad situation better.  
    If it feels right in the moment, I can often invite my child to find a way to right the wrong.  Having recognized the negative feelings that have arisen in their own hearts as a result of hurting someone else, they are most often eager to find a resolution.  Sometimes they say sorry, because they want to and they mean it.  Sometimes they give a hug.  Sometimes they offer some sort of material compensation – a toy, or a flower, etc.  Sometimes they just need a little space, and that is okay too.   
    What I don’t do, anymore, is try to solve a problem by telling anyone to apologize. After all, it doesn’t count anyway. 
    The next time you find yourself on the wrong side of a playground scrape, help your child to navigate their way through it. Instead of forcing a sorry that barely counts, give them tools, identify emotions, and be genuine.  Make it count. 
    Do you agree? Do you think kids learn anything valuable when they are told to apologize? 
    How do you deal with playground scrapes and kid squabbles? 
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