The scene is always the same, with different nuances: two children fight and the parents intervene quickly to solve the problem. “Say sorry”, we say in a more or less threatening tone to the responsible. At the beginning, the child is reluctant but after insisting he ends by saying “Sorry” with very little conviction.
Parents think that this way they’re teaching their children good manners and they will learn to apologize when they made a mistake. However, they could be wrong since that kind of apology, without the child experiencing true repentance for what he did, could do more harm than good.
Forced apologies make children feel bad, both the aggressor and his victim
Psychologists from the universities of Michigan and Oxford analyzed whether children are able to distinguish between sincere and voluntary expressions of repentance from those that are fruit of coercion. They observed how children between 4 and 9 years of age reacted to three types of apologies among their peers: spontaneous apologies, apologies encouraged by parents but made willingly and forced apologies.
They found that children saw voluntary apologies in a positive way, either made on their own initiative or encouraged by adults. However, forced apologies weren’t considered effective, especially in the case of older children.
This means that children are perfectly capable of distinguishing an honest apology from a coerced one. At the beginning, children thought that all the children should feel better after receiving an apology, but after watching the videos they realized that in reality only the victims who received a sincere apology felt better. They also noticed that forced apologies made the victim and the aggressor feel bad, so they didn’t solve the problem but made it worse.
What are the 3 ingredients of an effective apology?
Another study conducted at the Ohio State University revealed the ingredients of a perfect apology that show how to apologize in an effective way:
1. Acknowledgment of responsibility. It’s the most important ingredient and it’s about recognizing that we made a mistake. Obviously, for this, we first need to be aware of what we have done wrong, so it’s not worth a generic or forced apology.
2. Trying to repair the damage. When we offer some kind of reparation, the victim understands that we are willing to do something to correct our error, it’s like a declaration of goodwill.
3. Expression of repentance. This is assumed as a confirmation that we really feel bad about what we have done. And it’s the most difficult detail to pretend since it not only refers to our words and actions but also includes our facial expressions and the posture.
What can parents do to make their children say sorry in an effective way?
Forcing children to say sorry is counterproductive. Not even the other children see those apologies as something nice. Instead of forcing children to apologize, parents should help them put themselves in the other’s shoes.
In fact, the important point of this situation is to get the child adopt a more empathetic attitude and really understand what he has done wrong. Only then he can show genuine repentance that makes that apology be effective.
Keep in mind that apologies are not only used to repair the damage to the victim, but are also a lesson for who committed the error. If you force your son to say sorry without really repenting, he will most likely end up developing the social mask that many adults wear today, which is one of the causes of their unhappiness; that is, they learn to hide their emotions and ideas by doing many things moved by the “I have to” rather than the “I want to”. These are social norms that have never been understood but have been assumed, so they have become ties.
Perhaps at the time when the problem occurred it was difficult to get a small child out of his egocentric perspective to put himself in the place of the other. Keep in mind that it’s not always necessary for the child to apologize immediately.
When your child is calmer, perhaps at home, help him reflect on what happened. The next day he can come back and apologize, sincerely.
Smith, C. E.; Anderson, D. & Straussberger, A. (2018) Say You’re Sorry: Children Distinguish Between Willingly Given and Coerced Expressions of Remorse. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly; 64(2): 5.
Lewicki, R. J. et. Al. (2016) An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research; 9(2): 177-196.