Little girl looking worried

Do not force children to apologise, says parenting expert

Dr. Justin Coulson is an expert in positive psychology and parenting. Dr. Coulson’s new book 10 Things Every Parent Needs To Know is a comprehensive guide to navigating the trickier parts of raising another human being (or in his case, six!).  From skillfully communicating with children to finding balance with technology, Dr. Coulson book compassionately explains solutions to everyday parenting challenges.  

When our children treat one another badly, parents often demand that a child apologise for their behaviour. Usually we expect that the apology will be instant! But we shouldn’t insist on making things happen fast. Sometimes our children may need some time to consider the best way to make things better.

Our focus should be on helping, not hurting. We want progress, not perfection. When we give our children space, they come to their own conclusions about good ways to treat one another. When we demand they conform to our conclusions, they resist.

A former neighbour of mine, Elizabeth (not her real name), thinks apologies need to be taught like manners. When a child forgets to say ‘Please’ or ‘Thank you’, we instantly remind them to use their manners. Elizabeth suggests that the same needs to occur with apologies. When a child does something that requires an ‘I’m sorry’, parents should expect it right there and then – while the situation is still going.

As an example, if Elizabeth’s two children, Will and Chloe, are fighting, and three-year-old Will hits Chloe (aged five), Elizabeth will separate them and comfort Chloe. She will then require Will to ‘say sorry’. Chloe will then be asked to say, ‘Thank you for saying sorry.’ Elizabeth suggests that to respond to an apology with ‘It’s okay’ is wrong, because when people do the wrong thing it’s not okay.

Elizabeth told me, ‘I definitely demand that the children apologise in the moment. I’ll do it nicely, but the kids need to know they’re not getting anything  – we don’t move beyond this situation  – until they give an appropriate apology.’ Elizabeth acknowledges that sometimes her children are in tears before they actually apologise, but she’s okay with that.

When I asked her why she feels so strongly about forcing children to apologise, Elizabeth told me that many of her clients in relationship therapy never said sorry. ‘It’s not part of their vocabulary. Regardless of what they’ve done wrong, they don’t say those words. They show they’re sorry by buying things and making it up in other ways. But the words never come.’

I feel differently.

I believe that children should be taught and encouraged to apologise, but not through force. Apologies will come naturally when they feel peaceful and their empathy is activated.

Children, like adults, don’t want to say sorry when they feel they have to. When it’s forced, it feels inauthentic and meaningless. It is spat across the room with no contrition. And it isn’t really an apology. Even when the apology is delivered the way we want it delivered – politely – there is still no meaning behind it.

I suggest that children be asked to apologise, but it’s unlikely that it will mean anything ‘in the moment’. If the apology is not good enough, my recommendation is to get out of the moment. Tend to hurt children and ensure they’re okay. Then wait until the child who ‘needs to apologise’ is willing to talk about what happened.

They’re unlikely to want to talk, so I suggest we sit with them, hug them and assure them they’re not in trouble. We just need to talk. When they feel safe, talk about the issue and ask them to consider how it felt from the injured person’s perspective.

There are almost always two sides to a story.

They may have felt justified in their actions (though of course, in the case of violence, there is never adequate justification). Rather than apportioning blame, we need to simply help them recognise that they hurt someone or did wrong. Once they can see that their actions hurt them, we should ask them, ‘What is the right thing to do now?’ 

I believe every apology should contain four elements:

  1. I’m sorry.
  2. I know that what I did hurt you (or whatever the outcome of the action was).
  3. What I did was wrong.
  4. Will you forgive me?

As we talk with our children, we can help them to understand that these elements make up a full apology. When a person asks for forgiveness, the injured party doesn’t have to say, ‘That’s okay,’ or even ‘Thanks for the apology.’ Instead, they simply say, ‘Yes, I forgive you’. (And no, forgiveness right there and then is not a given.)

Elizabeth and I disagree on the timing of the apology. Elizabeth says it should be right now. I say do it when it can be done sincerely.

We disagree on whether we should force our child to apologise. I say, ‘No way.’ Elizabeth says, ‘Definitely.’ Elizabeth and I share the belief that children should learn to apologise in honest and sincere ways, and that parents need to be good examples of seeking forgiveness.

Every child (and adult) makes mistakes.

Saying sorry for those mistakes matters, but morality takes a long time to develop. Rather than rushing it and forcing apologies, I believe we should be gentle in the way we encourage empathy, and help our children to learn what a true apology is so they can offer them meaningfully. Ultimately, forced apologies train children to say things that they don’t mean.

That is, forced apologies teach children to lie.

(Sorry Elizabeth!)

Justin Coulson Ten Things Book CoverThis post is sponsored by ABC Books and HarperCollins Publishers and is an edited extract from 10 Things Every Parent Needs To Know by Dr. Justin Coulson.

Justin Coulson has a PhD in Positive Psychology and parenting and is an honorary fellow at the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne.  He lives with his wife and six daughters in Brisbane, Queensland, and travels Australia constantly, giving talks to parents, teachers, and professionals. He has authored two other books on parenting, 21 Days to a Happier Family and 9 Ways to a Resilient Child.




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