Dear Lenore: The teacher told me my 7-year-old gets very stubborn when he has offended someone and he won’t say he’s sorry. I’ve noticed this at home too.
As a principal, I had a lot of experience with kids’ anger, shame and regret. My favorites were the 6-year-olds who, caught in some misbehavior, arrived at my office already crying. Perhaps their regret was as much about being sent to the principal as about whatever they had done, but I spent most of my time with them offering comfort and helping them to learn what to do differently the next time.
As always, a child first learns patterns of behavior at home. Do you apologize to your son when you’ve made a mistake or accidentally hurt his feelings? Do other members of the family say they are sorry when they’ve made an error in judgment or behavior? Set this example at home, and it will be easier for your child to pick it up.
On a related note, sometimes children won’t own up to what they’ve done because they fear punishment if they tell the truth. If you help your son to see his errors as opportunities for learning, part of growing up, and use logical consequences like taking away privileges, it will make it easier for him to be honest with you. Once he owns his behavior, he should be able to apologize.
I have watched parents and teachers insist that a child apologize when he wasn’t ready. He may still be too angry at the person he has wronged. Some kids get stuck in their anger or embarrassment and need time to get unstuck. I always asked middle school combatants to shake hands after we talked, as a symbol that it was over. If they wouldn’t shake, I knew I had more to do.
My suggestion, after discussing what happened and helping him to see a better way to behave the next time, is to ask, “Do you have anything you want to say to anyone?” If he is too angry to listen or he’s not ready to apologize, then I would give him time to settle down, think it over, and let him know the conversation will be revisited. In most cases, by the next day, if the two parties are called together, they will be able to apologize — and mean it.
We are all hard-wired with empathy; if you ask, “How would you feel if someone did this to you?” your son will surely feel regret for hurting someone. You might also suggest he go beyond the words of apology: “How can you show that you are very sorry?”
A forced apology, those two words, “I’m sorry,” when they are not sincere, does nothing to create peace or improve the child’s attitude or behavior. Some kids think they can be cruel and then just apologize and all will be forgiven. Adults know it’s not so easy.
Next time, some ideas on teaching how to forgive.