A mother sees her son hit his friend and says, “That wasn’t nice. Now tell him you’re sorry.” Her son reluctantly mutters, “Sorry,” but it’s clear he feels no remorse.
In fact, he probably believes he did nothing wrong. Young children are egocentric and often focus on fulfilling their own needs without considering other people’s feelings. At times, they grab, hit, knock over each other’s blocks, say unkind things, and refuse to share. When these things happen, you should set firm limits rather than coerce your child into making insincere apologies.
When a child is forced to apologize, and when saying “I’m sorry” is the main consequence for unacceptable behavior, he may decide that it’s worth hitting other children or knocking over their toys. All he has to do is apologize afterwards, and he may be excused without further consequences.
Parents often enforce an apology because it’s a quick and easy way to deal with misbehavior. Yet parents know that hearing their child say, “I’m sorry,” can at times be unsatisfying. When they talk to their child about his unacceptable actions, he may respond, “But I said I’m sorry.” If you don’t overemphasize apologies, your child can’t so easily “get off the hook.”
The real motivation for a child to change his behavior comes not from the fear of having to apologize, but from the fear of angering his parents, or having a toy or privilege taken from him. A child who doesn’t want his parents to get angry at him may apologize on his own for misbehavior. Such an apology comes from within him and is much more sincere than an apology he’s forced to make.
You may wonder why your child doesn’t make genuine apologies. Sometimes he’s too embarrassed or ashamed to admit wrongdoing, and at other times he may not like being put on the spot. He may deny his actions (“I didn’t do it!”) either because he actually believes it’s true or because he fears your reaction and disapproval. Often, young children have strong feelings of autonomy and resist doing what their parents want them to do.
When your child hurts another child, focus on setting limits. Rather than saying, “You hit her; now apologize,” say, “I’m not going to let you hit her,” or “You may not want to play with your brother, but I’m not going to let you hurt him.” If you think your child’s old enough to understand, you can have him help remedy a situation: “Since you pushed over your friend’s blocks, you’ll have to help her put her building back together.” You can also model considerate behavior by apologizing for him: “I’m sorry he pushed over your building. He’s going to help you build it again.”
The older your child gets, the more easily you can discuss angry feelings with him. Listen to his reasons for misbehavior, no matter how far-fetched they seem: “But I had it first,” “He hit me,” or “He wouldn’t let me play.” Before he can learn to offer sincere apologies, he needs to believe that he can explain his side of a disagreement. Children (and adults) who feel unheard often defend themselves and, unless coerced, refuse to apologize even when they know they’re wrong.
Since your child imitates your behavior, remember to apologize to him when you overreact, bump into him, or take him away from play to rush out for your own reasons. If you apologize whenever the situation calls for it, your child will eventually copy your words and actions.