Putting meaning behind 'I'm sorry'

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 19, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara, What should be the approach for having children "apologize" to each other?  We have a 2 3/4-year-old daughter and a 7.5-month-old son.  There are times when she has done something she shouldn't (but is completely age appropriate - like taking toys away, bopping him, etc).  Soon enough, he will be doing things to her too. We would like to develop an approach for one child acknowledging to the other that what they did was wrong. Ideally, the approach we establish now would be the foundation that could evolve as they grow older.  The few times we have asked her to apologize and then give her brother a kiss have not worked so well.  She either is very disingenuous or more likely doesn't want to, which then degrades into a power struggle (that doesn't result in anything positive either).

Thanks for any advice you can offer.
From: Michelle, Medford

Hi Michelle,

I applaud you for wanting to set the foundation now for what happens later. You couldn't be more on target. But you know that adage that no one feels an emotion more than a 2-year-old? Well, it's true; think about the way they have tantrums. Can you imagine feeling that strongly about anything?! And then imagine having to apologize and kiss the person towards whom you are feeling that strongly! 

The words, "I'm sorry," don't have any true meaning to a toddler or preschooler; all they learn is that those two words erase the angry look on mom or dad's face, which is why a young child says them so mechanically. They want to be in your good graces again and these are the magic words to accomplish that.

So forget the kiss and try these ideas instead:

1. Label the offensive behavior:
"You took your brother's favorite toy out of his hand." Identify what was wrong about that: "You didn't ask his permission." Why that was bad: "That hurt his feelings." Label how that (hopefully) makes her feel: "I bet that makes you sad, to hurt his feelings." So that might come out like this: "When I pushed you, it hurt you and made you cry. I didn't mean to make you cry. I'm sorry I did that." You can take it a step further by asking her, "What can you do next time you want his toy? Can you remember to ask? Can you tell him, "Next time, I'll try to remember to ask."

2. Teach empathy. Empathy is a learned behavior that doesn't come easily to us as humans. When your child says, "I'm sorry," as way to please you, praise her effort and interpret what it means: "It was good for you to say 'I'm sorry' to your brother when you took his truck. He was unhappy when you took it and saying you're sorry shows that you care about his feelings." Or: "You were a good sister to say you were sorry. It made your brother feel better and I bet it made you feel better, too." Researchers say that kind of language increases the chance that the impulse to do the right thing will become internalized.

3. Avoid shaming. If you yell at her, "Don't be so mean to your brother!" the only things that happens is that she learns to be afraid of your reaction. She'll know she's done something bad but she won't know what it was or why it's bad. Say instead, ''Look at how your brother is crying. He's crying because you took his toy." By putting the attention on the hurt child, she is more likely to learn that her behavior has a consequence.

At this young age, really all you need to do is get across the message that saying you are sorry means you recognize that you hurt someone's feelings. In other words: I feel badly because you feel badly. By 5 or 6, when children have reached another level of cognition, you can add the layer of responsibility for somehow fixing the hurt. For instance,  "I'm glad to hear you say you're sorry but it takes more than words to make your friend feel better. What can you do to make her feel better?" Then give her some options: "'Can you offer your toy to play with? Can you help her?"

Perhaps most importantly of all, what role model do your present to your kids? There's nothing more powerful for a child than hearing one parent apologize to the other with this very same language, or having a parent apologize to her in the same way that you want her to apologize to her peers or to siblings.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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