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Child Caring

When an apology is not offered

Hi Barbara,
I've had an issue come up recently and I am hoping you can help. My three year old refuses to apologize. In most situations, whatever happened was accidental (stepping on a playmate's foot or splashing water at the water table and getting it in someone's eyes) but instead of apologizing, she puts her head down and cries.

I don't know where this is coming from. We don't make a big deal of things (YOU MUST APOLOGIZE!) and generally let the kids work things out for themselves. Most times, it's not even a big deal and the action goes unnoticed but if the other child does call her out on it (hey, you stepped on my foot) then a simple "sorry" and it would be over but it turns into a show stopper because she cries and refuses to apologize and then is too upset to continue playing and must be removed from the situation.

I've tried talking to her about it at another time when her emotions are not so raw. I've explained that she doesn't have to cry, all she has to do is say sorry but she starts to cry all over again saying, "BUT IT WAS AN ACCIDENT".

I don't want to give her a complex and make it a bigger deal but i don't want her to think it's okay to not apologize for somethings. I've even tried to show her that everyone apologizes. For example, if she and I are playing blocks I will "accidentally" knock over her blocks and say, 'I'm sorry, let me help you fix that,' but she just isn't catching on.

Any ideas?

From: Apology Accepted, Marshfield, MA


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Dear Apology Accepted,

Yes, manners matter. They have cultural benefits -- a simple, "I'm sorry" can help a child appear to be polite in the eyes of the world -- as well as personal ones: it's through apologies that children develop a sense of empathy which is, after all, a learned behavior. Sheryl Eberly writes in her book, "365 Manners Kids Should Know," that when a child learns to say "I'm sorry" to friends for the little things, those things tend to "stay little."

In "touchpoints, three to six," T. Berry Brazelton urges parents to start teaching manners by saying "please" and "thank you" to your baby so that, by age 3 and 4, those words are simply part of a child's habits. What's more, saying "I'm sorry," as you've been doing, is part of the process of teaching empathy, which is a learned behavior.

So yes, I get your concern. On the other hand, for reasons you may not be able to figure out, these words have developed a negative, indeed, shameful, aura for your daughter. When a child cries rather than give an apology, it might be out of fear of punishment. So I wouldn't force the apology on her. Instead:

Initiate a conversation: "What do you think it means to say 'I'm sorry?'" Here's the point you want to get across: "Sorry means, I realize I hurt you or your feelings. I feel badly because you feel badly. That's what being sorry is all about."

Talk to her about The Rules. Do this in a matter-of-fact way: "The rule is, when you want something, you say 'please."" "The rule is, when someone gives you something, you say, 'thank you."" "The rule is, when you do something that upsets another person, you say, 'I'm sorry.""

Continue to model the behavior you want her to learn by saying "I'm sorry" when it's appropriate. Don't over do it, and don't draw particular attention to it.

When you see your daughter do something that deserves an apology, focus on the injured party rather than on her. Yes, this could make your child feel guilty, but that's a healthier emotion than shame. Plus, when a child has the sense of having violated a standard of behavior, she may behave differently the next time.

If you see something happen at the playground, for instance, first, describe what happened: "You threw sand. It got in Amy's eye and it made her cry. You didn't mean to make her cry. Saying 'I'm sorry,' shows you care about her feelings." If she won't offer an apology, tell her matter-of-factly, "I can't make you feel sorry or apologize, but whether you are sorry or not, it's not OK to throw sand. We need to leave the playground."

Lastly, remember that at 3, your daughter is not yet able to internalize the feelings behind any of these words. That will come in the next few years. I wouldn't worry that her inability to apologize has long-range implications, especially if you continue to model appropriate responses.

Reinforce the behavior if she does say I'm sorry. "You were being a good friend to say you were sorry. It made Amy feel better, and I bet it made you feel good, too."