“Tell your sister you’re sorry!”

I’ve uttered those words what feels like millions of times. Say you are sorry for saying that mean thing, you’re sorry for hitting, you’re sorry for losing her headband, you’re sorry for killing your sister’s herd of sheep when you weren’t supposed to be in her world in Minecraft (tell me I’m not the only one?)

“Say it like you mean it,” I often say in my most stern voice after watching the eye-rolling, head-down, muttered apology my girls offer.

But do they mean it? Do those simple words that are supposed to mean so much really mean anything at all? Is apologizing a lost art?

As a writer, I think words really matter and can convey exactly what I want in the manner I wish the reader to receive it. As a harried mom, however, I often find myself trying to do the right thing without making every squabble a “teaching moment.” This means breaking up a quick argument with a forced apology and then moving on to the next task.

But what happens when we teach our kids that empty apologies get you by in life? What happens when we don’t teach our children to have empathy or develop the integrity to admit they were wrong. What happens when our sons and daughters think three words — eight letters — can erase their behavior?

The struggle for us as parents is it is difficult to make our kids “feel” a certain way, so we go through the routine of an apology in hope that one day they will just “get it.” But that’s a pretty big risk to take.

I'm sorry 6

So what’s a parent to do? Here’s a few tips:

+ Don’t tell them what to say. How can we expect our kids to be sincere if  we are spoon-feeding them the words? Instead, ask questions to provoke them to understand their actions. For example, “Why did you tell Mary she couldn’t sit with you?” Or “Why did you chop all the hair off of your sister’s American Girl doll?” Find out what your child was thinking before forcing them to apologize, and acknowledge their feelings.  It’s quite possible their behavior is motivated by an emotion they don’t know how to control yet. Additionally, this ensures they are processing what they did,  not just how they can get out of getting in trouble.

Focus on empathy. Empathy is something that often is cultivated throughout your life. Some people are born with it, but most others must be shown (and encouraged) to be empathetic. Before you tell your child to apologize, make sure they understand why they need to be giving it. Help them understand how they made the other person feel. “How would you react if your sister cut your favorite board games?”  or “How would you feel if  Mary didn’t let you sit at her table?” Then help your child create an empathetic apology that acknowledges she understands how the other person feels. “I’m sorry I made you feel left out. I was just saving that seat for my other friend. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.” Or if you live in my house, “I’m sorry I cut off your doll’s hair. I know you love doing their hair and she was your favorite. I was just mad that you wouldn’t play with me.”

No apologies under duress. Don’t threaten your child if he is hesitating on apologizing. There is no real lesson in forcing an “I’m sorry.” Once my daughter refused to apologize to a little girl at the park for dumping all the sand out of her buckets. I made a big deal about it and all the other kids were looking at her so she shut down and burst into tears causing the other mom to tell me not to worry about it. But I was relentless. No child of mine was going to be “the mean kid.” What started out as good-intentioned parenting turned into an embarrassing situation for all involved. Eventually my daughter uttered a barely intelligible “I’m sorry” that didn’t really mean anything. We should encourage our kids but not insist on an apology until we know it will be sincere. When you are in that type of situation — especially if you have younger kids — sometimes it’s okay if the parent offers the apology.

What to do next time. While it’s important to offer an apology, it’s even more important to give our children the tools to behave differently. Ask her how she could handle her emotions the next time or how she could change her behavior. For example, “The next time your sister doesn’t play with you (because you know there will be a next time), and you get angry, what could you do?” or “what could you say to someone who wants to sit with you but you’re saving the seat so it doesn’t sound so mean?”

Focus on forgiveness. Think of all the times you have received a passive aggressive, insincere apology from someone either in your work or personal life. Think of the damage it does to your relationship and the bitterness it creates. Now think of your child giving one of those apologies. Learning to give an effective apology — one that can restore a relationship — can have a tremendous impact on a child’s life. When your child does offer the apology, also encourage them to ask for forgiveness. Help them focus on a positive attribute of the other child, a reason to keep the relationship in tact. “I hope you will forgive me, as I really like having you in my class.” Or “I hope you will forgive me for cutting off your doll’s hair. I know she was your favorite. Mom says I can do chores to help pay for her to get some new hair.”

 + Model a sincere apology. No parent wants to admit they are wrong, but showing your son or daughter how to apologize can make a difference when the shoe is on the other foot. Make sure to stop what you are doing, look them in the eye, swallow your pride and let it rip. You can then use your apology as an example for when you need it.

What do you think about kids and apologizing?