All apologies

Written by anabelle garay
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Beyond "I'm Sorry": Teaching your child to offer a sincere apology

All apologies
After a school hallway fight, kids may grudgingly apologise. But they should learn to make it sincere.. (Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

he ability to clean up after upsets in a meaningful way is one of the characteristics of a healthy marriage partnership, it's one of the skills that we call 'people skills' in the work environment. So it’s one of the skills that parents need to teach children so they'll eventually be ready to be full adults.

— Susan Heitler, clinical psychologist

You flash your child that stern mum look after getting called to the school about your son or daughter's playground altercation. Aside from being punished, he also has to say "I'm sorry" to the other child. While that's not always easy for anyone to do, apologising is an essential lesson for a child to learn now and use later in life, experts and parents agree.

When to teach the concept of apologising

All apologies
Toddlers may begin to understand right and wrong. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Getting a child to say “I’m sorry” is at the centre of social interaction and getting along with others. However, it’s essential for your child to understand why the action was wrong rather than just learning to offer a blanket “sorry,” parents and experts say.

Understanding the concept of apologising depends on a child’s cognitive level and language skills, says Claire B. Kopp, a developmental psychologist who focuses on newborns to 5-year-olds. Around age 1, children begin having a sense of right and wrong, but they don’t fully have an understanding of the "why" behind it. They also start to understand emotions, such as seeing a pleasant expression or a scolding one on a parent’s face, Kopp says.

By age 4, however, children realise their parents and others have ideas that are different.

Explaining with Words

All apologies
As children get older, they need to be taught social skills, including how to apologise and mean it. (Polka Dot/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

“Words are needed," Kopp said. "If you decide you want to put the child in their room or in a corner, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

For instance, when Leticia Ferrusquia, a mother of three, got a call from school about her then 8-year-old son, Moi, holding a girl down while other boys kicked her, she to spoke to her tearful son about his schoolyard transgression.

Before he said “I’m sorry” to his classmate, Ferrusquia explained that even though he was annoyed that the girl, who has mental health issues, would try to hug him and even kissed him on the lips once, he couldn’t respond that way.

Ferrusquia asked her son how he’d feel if it was him being held down and hit. She also gave him alternative: telling school staff if he felt the girl was doing something wrong toward him.

“He needs to accept when he’s wrong," she said. "First of all not to do it, to not hurt other people. [And] if he does something unwillingly and he doesn’t think about the results, to accept that he’s wrong.

Ways of apologising

All apologies
Young children may express remorse, but can't verbalise it. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

After doing something wrong, young children may bury their heads in Mum’s lap or hunch their shoulders and look down at the ground -- indicators of being sorry, Kopp says. “If you see the physical signs of an apology, let it go at that,” she said.

For example, Laurisa Escobedo’s 2-year-old son, Rudy, got a guilty look on his face after biting his cousin Sean. Right now, “I’m sorry” is just a phrase to Rudy; he’s too young to fully understand it, says Escobedo, a single mum.

“The only thing right now that I can do, I show him the bite mark on Sean. I show to him that he’s crying because he recognises his own emotions,” she said. “I tell him ‘You made Sean sad’ ... sometimes that makes him start crying, too.”

More than "I'm sorry"

All apologies
Apologies may include peace offerings. (Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Sincere apologies require some basics. Parents can start teaching them early, but should adapt them to a child’s age, says Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist.

First, children and adults should be specific about what the child did that was wrong. It’s also important to explain it wasn’t intentional, she says.

School-age children can take on the next step, clarifying what happened. That may mean explaining they misunderstood or were tired or thinking about something else, Heitler says. By the time they’re teenagers, and certainly adults, apologies should include a learning angle to them.

“What [are you] going to do different next time to prevent a similar mishap?” Heitler said.

The best role model

If you can’t bring yourself to apologise, it’s likely your son or daughter will also have trouble learning to say “I’m sorry.”

So apologising is a lesson parents can teach by admitting when they’re wrong and saying “I’m sorry,” including to their children.

“It’s really important because as parents we make mistakes,” Kopp said “This is part of saying, ‘I’m human. I’m not perfect.’ To recognise that a parent isn’t infallible, I don’t think that takes away from a parent’s dignity to say ‘I’m sorry.’”

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