Stop Making Your Kid Apologize to People. It Doesn't Help Anyone.

Vanessa Torre

There is a better way to handle their mistakes.

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My best friend lives in a conservative, suburban area of town with homes that mostly look alike. She’s more of a bright-colored house neighborhood with a Mexican grocery store nearby kind of person. Her next-door neighbor had not one but several Trump flags adorning his yard. This was disconcerting to her gay daughter.

Turns out, the culprit doodling anti-Trump phrases on the sidewalk in front of the house, who was caught on camera, was said daughter. Whoops.

As we were talking about how she and her husband were handling it, she said she has to take her daughter over there to apologize to the man who can’t open his door without swatting away a few of the conservative flags.

I told her I advised against making her daughter apologize. If there’s one thing that has never felt right to me is when anyone has told a kid, “Say you’re sorry!” Forcing our kids to apologize for something teaches them lessons I don’t find valuable.

There are better ways to handle their mistakes that teach them actual lessons they’ll carry into adulthood. This is the point of parenthood. Raise good humans into adulthood.

My friend told me that once she sat down with her daughter and talked to her about how she would feel if the tables were turned, she understood and she genuinely felt bad about her behavior. That’s good parenting.

We need to let our kids come to their own understanding of how their behavior affects people. When we drag them over to someone — be it another kid, an adult, a neighbor — to apologize when they don’t mean it or understand it, all we’re doing is teaching them that saying one simple, empty phrase can absolve them of responsibility.

I’m careful about teaching my daughter that words matter. It’s not what you say but how you say it. Spitting out an “I’m sorry” is easy and it’s a cop-out.

Like my friend did with her daughter, we need to ask our kids questions that get them to a point where we’re teaching them reasoning mixed with empathy.

If our kids can’t verbalize exactly what they’re sorry for, we shouldn’t force them into a meaningless apology. I spent years in a classroom and years supervising kids in parks and rec programs.

What I found was that most kids aren’t actually sorry about what they did that got them in trouble. They’re sorry they got caught. No one wins here.

Johnny doesn't like Joey. He really wanted to hit him in the head with a pool cue. Given the opportunity, if he knew there was no way he would get caught, he’d do it again.

We can’t teach kids that giving an apology, that they don’t mean but feel obligated to give, fixes the problem. Mom is mad at them (and, frankly, embarrassed) and shoves the kid forward to deliver an apology. The kid stands there looking at her shoes until she lifts her head a little, delivers the goods, and then mom takes her away and everything goes back to normal.

There’s no processing involved. There’s no reflection. It doesn’t matter how young the child is, we need to start teaching them self reflection early.

Here’s what I propose instead: after talking to your son or daughter about something that they did that was wrong, ask them how they feel. Use that to determine what to do about whatever is it is that got them in trouble.

Going back to my friend’s chalk graffiti artist daughter, it’s fine if she’s not sorry she did it. She doesn't have to be. But, she can still empathize with her neighbor. Instead of just offering, “I’m sorry I wrote what I did on the sidewalk in front of your house” she can still acknowledge his anger.

She can tell him she understands why he’s mad. She can own that she behaved poorly and what she did wasn’t right. She can offer to make it right by cleaning it up. Nowhere in this do the words “I’m sorry” have to leave her mouth.

We apologize because the other party expects it. How many times have we seen adults publicly demand an apology only to have that apology fall flat? I’ve run into a good number of adults that have no idea how to apologize to someone in a way that isn’t backhanded and more harmful than helpful.

It comes in the form of phrases like, “I’m sorry your feelings are hurt,” or “I’m sorry you overheard that.” Anything that starts with “I’m sorry but…” is not an apology. Nothing about these phrases does anything that acknowledges the poor behavior of the person apologizing and makes them the passive participant in the wrongdoing.

I’ve often asked my daughter when she’s done something unfavorable if she’s sorry. If she says yes, I asked her to tell me more about that. What is she sorry for? What could she have done differently? This becomes the genesis of her making the situation right.

It creates a three-step process of communicating regret. Acknowledge poor behavior. Validate the other person’s feelings. Explain what can be done differently moving forward.

The last part of this is crucial. We need to teach our kids that apologies are actionable statements. An apology means nothing if the bad behavior continues. They need to commit to correcting behaviors. It’s our job as parents to redirect. Our kids aren’t born with this ability as an inherent part of their operating system.

Yes, it’s asking kids to behave and process their actions in a very grown-up manner but that is the whole point. Kids will rise to the occasion. Let’s have a little faith. We don’t have to dumb down life for them. It’s all about how we take the time to encourage that growth.

I’m proud of my friend for guiding her daughter through this. It taught her how her actions affect other people and not to do things that she would hate for other people to do to her. She feels bad but there’s no shame involved. She’ll think twice the next time she picks up a piece of chalk but the lesson was always about more than the chalk.

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Flaming pinball, nerd, music lover, wine snob, horrible violin player. No, she won’t stop taking pictures of her drinks. vanessaltorre@gmail.com IG: vanessaltorre Twitter: @vanessaltorre

Phoenix, AZ
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