Sorry/Not Sorry

It’s important to not cover over a situation with a lie by telling them, because they said the ‘magic words’, that everything is all better.  And don’t make the offended person pretend everything is all better because they heard the ‘magic words’.  

Sorry_Not Sorry
Photo Credit: Hilary Storm

Teaching kids, particularly siblings, the complexities of apologizing and forgiving is difficult.  When my kids were young, I would require one of the them to say, ‘I’m sorry’ and the other one to say, ‘I forgive you’ but I knew neither of their hearts were in a good place.  The reason it’s so difficult is because these are heart issues, not a learned skill.  As a parent, I was frustrated because I knew I didn’t know what I was doing.  As I’ve learned about the complexities of my own heart when I need to seek forgiveness or to forgive, I’ve thought of a few things that might help young children.

Teach Outside of the Moment

Hearts are raw when an apology is needed.  An offense has occurred and pride is magnified.  This really is not the time to ‘teach’ a child (or anyone else).  The ears to hear, the eyes to see, and the heart to feel are all closed.  To look at a child/person and say, “now, say you’re sorry” will never produce sorrow.

Discussions outside of the moment need to happen.   You can talk about upcoming situations like going to a friend’s house or what happened at the friend’s house yesterday.  Honor their hearts by letting them know that being sorry is actually really difficult.  Teaching outside of the moment allows the heart to come back to neutral so they can hear, see, and feel rationally.    

Recognize You’re the Example

Look at your own tendency when you have offended someone.  Instead of owning a wrongdoing, most people justify; I was tired, I’m suffering PMS, I wanted it, he made me mad, I was stressed, but you…   It’s human nature to justify and your children are human.  When you have offended your children, do you apologize or justify?  Acknowledge the difficulty in yourself to seek forgiveness for an offense, especially when you have a justification.

It starts before they are walking by exampling how to apologize.  Then, as they get older, you explain how badly you felt when you hurt someone and how you want to make things right or ways you want to change.

Talk About Feelings

Have regular conversations about feelings.  This might be a stretch even for you, but it’s worth learning how to do.  Young children who don’t have words for emotions can learn by coloring pictures of faces depicting emotions and use the pictures to point to how they are feeling. They can express their own emotions through dolls and stuffed animals.   You can even develop a game of Simon Says to ‘put on’ different faces.  These all help children to think about emotions.

Use Third Parties

Empathy is the driver to actually being sorry when we have offended someone.  Talking about how others might be feeling (empathetically not gossipy), how characters in books might be feeling, or how animals might be feeling all help build empathy in your child.  Questions like, ‘how do you think you would feel if….’ help a child relate emotionally with others.

The Mechanics of An Apology

Teaching the mechanics of a good apology may be the most difficult part since it’s not really a part of our culture.  Peacemaker Ministries developed the 7 A’s of an Effective Apology.   

Address everyone involved:  The apology needs to go as far as the offense.  If sister hits brother in front of five people, then five people need to hear the apology.

Admit specifically what they did: By being specific about an offense it communicates to the person so that they understand what they did wrong.

Avoid using “if’s”, “but’s” and “just’s”:  Whenever these words are used in an apology, it negates the apology and you can be guaranteed it will happen again.

Acknowledge the hurt:  To tell a person how you believe your actions affected them emotionally goes a long way.

Accept the consequences of their actions:  When we fight against (complain, pout, guilt-trip, manipulate) because we are suffering a consequence, we don’t learn from it.

Alter their behavior:  We need to let the person know how we intend to correct our behavior next time.

Ask for forgiveness:  We need to use the actual words, “Will you forgive me.”  There are a hundred ways to get around this.  It’s humbling to ask to be forgiven and that’s what is needed for the offender.

This is one of the most difficult and important things to accomplish in parenting because no person can force another person to be sorry.  A child/person can make it all the way through the mechanics of an apology and not really be sorry for having offended someone else.  Instead of going through the checklist with a child, you can ask them questions like, ‘I think you’re trying to apologize but what are you apologizing for?’  ‘If you are truly sorry, then why are you fighting the consequence?’  ‘How will you change your behavior next time?’  

Don’t worry too much if you get into a particular situation where you believe your child isn’t actually sorry.  It’s not a hill to die on.  Everyone, even you, will have an off day.  Let it go for the moment recognizing that this is an area for more conversation, role play, and leading by example outside of the moment.   

It’s important to not cover over a situation with a lie by telling them, because they said the ‘magic words’, that everything is all better.  And don’t make the offended person pretend everything is all better because they heard the ‘magic words’.  Most of the time the offended person knows if the apology was a lie.  Let them know that you see the difference.  You might leave a particular situation that isn’t going well with,

‘I don’t think you really understand how that made your sister feel, but I’m going to let this go and trust that you will think more about it.’  

‘I think we’ve talked about this long enough, but I’m disappointed that you don’t seem to understand how your actions/words have affected your brother.  I hope next time you will be more careful.’  

‘I can’t make your heart be sorry.  But you should recognize that your actions broke the relationship with your sister and it’s important to repair the relationship.  I’m going to let you think about that.’  

‘You know what, this isn’t going very well.  We will talk more about this after you have a rest and a snack.’  

As a parent, you have dozens opportunities every week to lead your child’s heart in this area.   Sometimes it’s tempting to keep folding clothes and yell from the other room ‘now, say you’re sorry.’  But I encourage you to slow down, honor your child’s heart, talk about these things, and lead them by example.