Forgiveness is a balm for the soul. Through forgiveness we free ourselves from the person who hurt us and lighten the weight of resentment or hatred in order to move on with lighter emotional baggage. For this reason, forgiveness must have an important space in early childhood education.
Children must not only learn to forgive but also to ask for forgiveness when they are wrong. In fact, research has found that children are more forgiving with their peers when they apologize and are perceived as nicer. However, the best way to teach children to apologize is to lead by example: parents should apologize to their children when they make mistakes.
Why is it important to ask your children for forgiveness?
A study carried out at the University of Cambridge revealed that at the age of 4, a child already fully understands the emotional implications of an apology. However, many parents avoid apologizing to their children, especially when they are young, because they think they should project an image of infallibility. They believe that admitting to their children that they have made a mistake undermines their authority and credibility.
Others are convinced that admitting a mistake and apologizing shows weakness and vulnerability. There are also those who think that it is not necessary to apologize to children since, in a certain way, they are subject to the authority of adults.
That discomfort or even shame when it comes to apologizing to children has its origin in adultcentrism, a vision in which little ones have no voice or vote while adults decide what is right or wrong. However, if we want to teach children to ask for forgiveness, we must begin by apologizing for our mistakes.
Children who has never heard “I’m sorry” from their parents will end up thinking that all those in a position of authority and power do not need to apologize and have permission to bully others, so they are unlikely to apologize for their mistakes in the future.
Those children will also get the message that it is not necessary to apologize when they hurt another person, so they will probably develop a more egocentric personality with little room for empathy.
When should parents apologize to their children?
Asking the children for forgiveness or apologizing to the children is setting an example. It is an act of humility and a sign that adults are not infallible. It conveys the idea that mistakes are part of life and that it is important to correct them.
When we apologize to a child, we are teaching him/her prosocial behavior, so that we help him/her put himself/herself in the other’s place, which will end up facilitating cooperation, respect, and coexistence. We teach him/her, after all, to respect the others and maintain better relationships.
That child will also learn that we all make mistakes and that we have an obligation to recognize what we have done wrong in order to try to repair it. He/she will also learn that we can all feel ashamed when apologizing, but that this act can repair wounds and broken relationships, generating great well-being. In fact, a study conducted at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University revealed that apologies to children help to repair their confidence and increase positive emotions.
On a day-to-day basis, there are many situations for which it would be necessary to apologize to children, such as:
• When parents make a promise that don’t keep, for whatever reason
• When parents lose their temper and yell at their children, making them feel bad
• When parents forget something important to the children or that made them particularly excited, even if it is inconsequential for adults
• When parents make mistakes, they offend children or put too much pressure on their shoulders
How to apologize to children?
1. Be authentic. Apologies must come from the heart. That “I’m sorry” can’t be superficial. The perfect apology also does not include “buts” since this word clouds its sincerity. It is simply about recognizing what we have done wrong, without resorting to justifications.
2. Acknowledge hurt feelings. For many children, it is frightening to see their parents upset with them. A sincere apology that acknowledges that we hurt their feelings or made them feel bad can restore the relationship and help little ones feel better.
3. Accept responsibility for what we did wrong. When apologizing, it’s better to acknowledge the mistake directly and take responsibility for the consequences of that behavior. We must apologize concisely and briefly.
4. Talk about feelings. It is important to connect emotions with inappropriate behavior. Therefore, we must explain to our children what made us react in this way, since in this way they will also learn to better manage their emotions and assume responsibility for them.
5. Provide compensation. Offering compensation that can repair the damage or restore the relationship is always a good idea. Therefore, it is appropriate that we ask children: “How can I make it up to you?” This compensation validates the child’s feelings and at the same time makes him/her understand that the relationship is important to his/her parents.
In general, when parents apologize to their children, they are not only kind and empathetic, but more importantly, they become an example. When they apologize they are acknowledging that they too make mistakes, they are not perfect and they don’t always do the right thing, so they encourage their children to do the same. As Richelle E. Goodrich wrote; “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is saying ‘I love you’ with a wounded heart in one hand and your smothered pride in the other.”
Smith, C. E. et. Al. (2018) Say You’re Sorry: Children Distinguish Between Willingly Given and Coerced Expressions of Remorse. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly; 64(2): 275-308.
Ma, F. et. Al. (2018) Apologies repair children’s trust: The mediating role of emotions.
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Smith, C. E. et. Al. (2017) When and Why Parents Prompt Their Children to Apologize: The Roles of Transgression Type and Parenting Style. J Fam Stud; in 23(1): 38–61.
Harris, P. L. et. Al. (2012) He Didn’t Want Me to Feel Sad: Children’s Reactions to Disappointment and Apology. Social Development; 21(2): 215-228.