Seven Alternatives to Forced Apologies

Playground and play group etiquette often dictates that when your child hurts another child, takes something away, refuses to share, or any of those other behaviors that make parents cringe, you must demand that your child apologize. Even if your child obviously doesn’t mean it.

When Kieran hurts or frustrates another child, I do want to acknowledge and comfort the child who has been hurt or frustrated, but I do not force Kieran to apologize. Instead of teaching Kieran to apologize automatically and without sincere feeling,1 I want to focus more on helping Kieran empathize with others and learn how to play and interact with his friends appropriately.

Here are seven ways to help your child learn both the social niceties of apologies, as well as how to apologize with sincerity:

  1. Connect with Your Child: Try Aldort’s S.A.L.V.E. technique: calm yourself down and let go of your first (often angry or embarrassed) reaction. Give your child some attention; listen to him. Validate his feelings and needs, and empower him to solve his own problems.
  2. Show Concern: Model empathy, both for your child and for the injured child. When you are comforting the other child, do so in a way that your own little one does not feel guilty or ashamed.
  3. Model Apologies for Your Child: Feel free to say “I’m sorry” to the other child. Your little one will pick up on the practice in time. Again, do not apologize in order to shame your own child, just offer your concern sincerely. (“It looks like you are upset because Molly does not want to share her tricycle. I am sorry that you cannot have a turn right now. Would you like to talk about it?” or “Would you like to ride the scooter instead?”)
  4. Change Your Thinking: When you see conflict, take a moment to change the way you view things. Instead of getting upset or panicking, trust that you and your child (or the two children) can cooperate to solve the problem. Look at each problem as a chance to meet everyone’s needs, not as a battle that someone will win and someone will lose. The section in Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids called “Make Your Home a No-Fault Zone (Key 7)” is an excellent guide to help you change your thinking.
  5. Help Her Find Words: Encourage your child to verbalize how she is feeling. Helping her learn how to express herself when she is upset will give her the tools she needs to avoid these types of conflicts in the future.
  6. Label Feelings: Talk about how the other child might feel too – use visual cues – help your child learn to identify feelings in others. (“I wonder how Molly felt when you hit her, do you think she might be feeling sad? She is crying right now.”) Take conflict as an opportunity to help her learn new feelings words. There is a great chapter on identifying and expressing feelings in Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, as well as a helpful list of feeling words you can stick on your refrigerator.
  7. Apologize for Your Mistakes: Parents aren’t saints, we mess up. Daily. We yell when our fuse is too short, we use hurtful words, we talk negatively about our children in front of them. Acknowledge the times you have had poor judgment, the angry, hurtful moments you wish you could take back. Say you’re sorry – and MEAN it.

What other ways can you model and teach how to empathize and apologize?

Photo Credit: doriana_s

This post has been edited from a previous version published at Code Name: Mama.

  1. To read more about why some parents and professionals do not agree with forced apologies, try The Ethics of Representing Childhood in Western Culture and How Children Learn Manners, both by Naomi Aldort.

About The Author: Dionna

Code Name: Mama CodeNameMama My NPN Posts

Dionna is co-founder of Natural Parents Network. She blogs about natural parenting and life with a toddler-almost-preschooler at Code Name: Mama. She also co-founded NursingFreedom.org, a site dedicated to normalizing breastfeeding anytime, anywhere.

5 Responses to Seven Alternatives to Forced Apologies

  1. Sylvia@MaMammalia

    Thanks for these helpful suggestions and resources! I’m a firm believer in teaching empathy instead of forcing my kid to say things just to be polite. Because this isn’t a mainstream idea, playground interactions can be awkward…the other kids seem to get the difference, but I’m not so sure about the other parents.

  2. Momma Jorje

    Yeah, empty apologies are worthless. Great suggestions.

  3. Cynthia

    Excellent list.

    The one additional thing we do is to have our child make amends for his wrongdoing. He may not “feel sorry”, and that’s okay, but when we hurt someone we should always try to right our wrong. We gently assist him in brainstorming ways he can help – from a simple apology, to a hug, to a letter or shared toy – and then help him to follow through.

    Having practiced this for the past year or so, it now comes naturally to him (most of the time). When he hurts his brother, he stops, gives him a hug, and asks him if he’s okay. Sometimes he kisses the “owie” or offers him a toy. I hope this helps him to not only accept responsibility as he grows, but be willing to take steps to make the situation right again.

  4. Charise@I Thought I Knew Mama  

    This is such helpful advice, Dionna! Thank you!

  5. Tabetha Smelser  

    That is just incredible advice! I don’t have kids of my own yet but my husband and I have talked a lot about wanting to do positive parenting and this just sings to me. I love the part about taking cues from the hurt child to help your child understand how the other child is feeling, like crying. Also, I’m definitely going to check out those two books that you suggested!

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