In yesterday’s guest post on the Mabel’s Labels blog, psychotherapist and parenting expert Alyson Schafer discussed her views on forcing children to say “I’m sorry,” after an incident. She feels that making your child simply say the words creates a power struggle and invites a sarcastic, “I’m saaawry.”
I encountered this view at a highly-regarded child care centre where I did a university placement and it didn’t sit right with me there either. We weren’t really given an explanation at that time beyond, “It teaches children to lie to get out of trouble,” without any insight as to what to do instead, which cemented my dislike of the policy.
Alyson Schafer gives a much better explanation than that in her post and I agree with all of her recommendations of “what to do instead” – but instead of “instead” I would do them “as well.”
I talked briefly about apologies in my post on empathy and compassion and described what we are teaching Ben and Molly to do when someone has been hurt.
Today I was faced with exactly the sort of situation Schafer is talking about: Molly shoved a broom I had asked her to put away, hitting Ben on the forehead. Ben cried and Molly ran away when I asked her to apologize. Chaos ensued as Ben, feeling better, started to chase her, I told him to stand still and let me handle it, etc., and finally Molly returned, said a grudging, “Sowwy,” and made a break for it again. This was the teachable moment – I could have accepted the lip service and ended it there, but I chose not to.
I showed Molly the red mark on Ben’s head and said that she needed to find out if Ben was okay and if there was anything she could do to help. Molly said, “Are you okay Ben?” and he said, “Yes, I’m okay now.” Molly said, “I’m sorry,” this time meaning it, and they hugged and Ben said, “I forgive you.” Molly said, “Can I do anything?”, Ben replied, “Well, I could use some ice,” and they ran off together to get an ice pack from the freezer.
So yes, Alyson Schafer is right – if I had simply required Molly to utter the words, “I’m sorry,” and left it at that, Molly would have taken away from the experience the understanding that saying, “Sawwwry!” is a magical get-out-of-jail-free card. By not letting her off the hook there and delving deeper into the meaning behind the words, I encouraged a moment of healing and connection for both Ben and Molly that taught them the power of apology, reparation, and forgiveness.
“Sorry” is just a word, but it is a word that has deep meaning in our society, and apology is a two-way street. When I make my child say the words, whether they mean it or not, it eases the other person’s pain. By switching the focus to the other person’s feelings, I help my child understand that impact and make the interaction doubly meaningful this time and in future.
What do you think? When we make a child say “sorry” or “thank you” are we teaching them to lie to avoid getting in trouble, or are we teaching them empathy?