February 28, 2020 

Isn’t insisting on an apology the right way to make things right?

Every parent has faced that uncomfortable moment when their child has clearly crossed the line by transgressing against another child. A toy has been snatched, a turn stolen, or maybe things have escalated to shoving or grabbing. Adults may find that our first impulse is to order an apology, which is followed by our child’s transparently insincere apology (or a stubborn refusal to speak). Clearly, there isn’t much remorse or regret.

Part of being a parent in the early years is teaching both everyday manners and the larger moral lessons about how we treat other people. A child isn’t born knowing that when you accidentally step on someone’s foot, or knock someone down during a game of tag, “Oh, I’m sorry, are you OK?” is the appropriate response. We role-model these encounters for children when they are preverbal, and gradually give children the words and language to use as they develop.

The second part, though, about teaching empathy and character, goes much deeper. Even very young children can empathize with the distress of others; in a room full of toddlers, if one starts to cry the others may respond with attempts to comfort him by bringing him toys, touching him, or even just looking distressed themselves. In research studies, most infants who are shown “helpful” puppets that assist another puppet with a task, alongside an unhelpful puppet, show a preference for the more altruistic puppet.

In the heat of the moment, though, young children have a much harder time accessing empathy when their own wishes are being thwarted. The immaturity of the brain’s impulse control center means that a little person is easily swamped by intense feelings, so when your preschooler is frustrated, angry, or stressed, they have a hard time “using their words.” A strong sense of shame that often follows a young child after a conflict may make a spontaneous apology even more unlikely.

In such situations, a caregiver can tend to the wronged party first and then calmly, but firmly, discuss what happened: “It looks like you wanted a turn on the swing, but Dylan was waiting first. He didn’t like it when you grabbed it from him. I’ll help you wait, but you can’t push.” If Dylan looks upset, a parent could ask their child, “What can you do to make it right?”

Encouraging a child to make amends (an apology is one way to do that) often works best when the child has calmed down and when the caregiver has their own emotions under control. If parents communicate that they have standards for how one treats people, and they help a child meet those standards in a loving but firm way, social skills begin to develop.

Still not convinced? Researchers at the University of Michigan recently studied if children could distinguish between sincere and forced apologies, and how that affected their perception of the feelings of both children involved. Children as young as 7 years old could usually discern whether an apology was forced. But even 4-year-olds could tell that the person on the receiving end of a forced apology felt worse than the person hearing a prompted apology.

Children in the study also perceived that the child who was forced to apologize felt self-pity, rather than remorse. The conclusion was that a willing apology (even one nudged by a caregiver) is more satisfying and a better learning experience for everyone involved.


Lisa Phillips, a licensed social worker and parent educator at The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital, is a contributor to the award-winning “Parenting Corner” column. She can be reached at 504.896.9591; chnola.org/parentingcenter.

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