Teaching apologies

Katie R. East, MMFT
Counsellor, Employee Assistance Program
May 2, 2021

For many of us, our first experience with apologies is hearing an adult say, “Tell so-and-so you’re sorry.” Then we or the other child would look down and mumble, “Sorry.” Not long after this adult-imposed ritual, we would simply resume our usual play with the other child.

In his book Childhood Unbound, Ron Taffel encourages parents to teach their values to their kids, like how and why we apologize to others. When we aren’t teaching these lessons consciously, we may be sending mixed messages. For example, we might tell our kids to say they’re sorry, but never apologize to them or let them see us apologizing to others. Teaching kids to apologize requires both instruction and modelling.

Acknowledgement. A meaningful apology starts with acknowledging two things: a wrongdoing took place and someone was harmed by it.

A common family example often includes the phrase “But you said...!” from a child whose expectations haven’t been met. Adults respond with the logical explanation of why the plan had to change: something came up at work, another family member has a more pressing need or any one of a hundred other legitimate reasons. We expect this to remedy any bad feelings. When it doesn’t, we often feel irritated at the disappointed child.

We all feel bad when we make a mistake, so it’s understandable that we may get more upset when the response to our mistake makes us feel worse. When we don’t want someone we love to feel bad, sometimes we try to skip over the part where we have to admit that they have a reason to be upset.  When we respond with, “I can’t make plans with you if you act this way” or “don’t tell me what I said,” we fail to model empathy and to acknowledge that our young person is experiencing a negative consequence through no fault of their own.

This common situation is a perfect opportunity for us as adults to show the children in our lives how to make a meaningful apology without being defensive. For example, a better response might be, “You’re right. I did say we would go to the park. I know you were really looking forward to going and you’re sad and disappointed that now we can’t go.” This simple statement acknowledges a promise was broken and expectations were not met (wrongdoing), and that a person we care about is hurt because of it (harm).

Take responsibility. Apologies that acknowledge personal responsibility have more meaning. “I’m sorry that I worked late instead of keeping my promise to you.”

Commit to making change. Make a commitment to not repeat the wrongdoing. “I’ll make sure that I don’t have to work late the next time we make plans together.”

Make it right. The final step is then the offer of reparation, “I’ll make it up to you by reading an extra storybook tonight.”

When children have been on the receiving end of meaningful apologies, it makes it easier to teach them to make a good apology when they make mistakes and hurt people they care about.

Imagine your child has taken something that doesn’t belong to them. This is an opportunity for you to teach a good apology. Begin by laying out your values about the incident. “In our family we believe it’s wrong to take someone else’s toy. We need to decide how you are going to apologize to your friend.” As the adult, you can then help your child prepare the apology. Following the outlined steps might lead us to something like, “Yesterday when I was at your house, I put your toy in my pocket and took it home with me. I know you were probably afraid you lost it. I made the wrong choice to take it. You are a good friend to me, and I am sorry I took it from you. Here is your toy back and I will not take something of yours again.”

We can lay this groundwork for children from the beginning, and we can start this practice at any time. According to Taffel, it is never too late for us to articulate the values that are important to us, and to show the children in our lives how to live out those values.  By actively showing how to make good apologies, we can move the focus away from shame and the desire to deny or hide mistakes to teaching about how all good people make mistakes and “I’m sorry” is something we all have to say.

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