While at Teenseen we are usually focused on adolescents and their development we know many parents are also juggling the needs of their younger siblings and these family dynamics can have an effect on everyone.
Parenting can be awkward sometimes. Like when your 4-year old tells you ‘that man smells bad’ – in a lift. Been there. We’ve all had cringe-worthy moments and it’s not that our kids are rude, mean or disrespectful, they’re just being age-appropriate clueless.
Other awkward moments include when your child hurts another child, whether on purpose or not. Of course, we’re horrified and rush in to ‘fix’ the situation. And in our attempt to preserve our honour and teach our child a lesson in morality, we insist they say those all-important words, “I’m sorry”.
Apologies are critical for healthy relationships and apologising might be deemed a core life skill. They repair brokenness in a relationship and allow restoration on the part of the offender. But this doesn’t always apply to children, especially young ones.
Children take a little longer to comprehend experiences and to have a parent demand, or even suggest, an apology immediately after an incident has occurred is confusing at best. Children want to do well but forcing an apology is not ultimately where the child needs to be. It’s phony and one thing young children don’t do is fake emotion.
A true apology is based in empathy, that deep and soulful emotion that underpins just about every positive emotional interaction. Empathy is not necessarily instant for a child and whilst there are certainly people that have an innate capacity for it, it is most often a learned behaviour. Young children may not be ready to understand what’s gone on and what they need to apologise for. We are not modelling empathy by forcing an insincere apology.
So, what should we do instead?
For young children, it might be possible to be there before it plays out. Be there to catch the impulse. If your child is old enough to understand apologies, it’s still best not to instruct them to say sorry. Rather acknowledge the situation and model yourself what needs to happen next – ‘I’m so sorry, Max. Are you hurt badly?’
Our objective is for our children to achieve restitution, a positive action to make them feel better about themselves. This may not be in words, or at least those words. It might look like a hug, or a card, or “will you forgive me?”. Gentle reminders about how others might be feeling can lead to an acknowledgement of regret, rooted in authentic empathy rather than a fake apology forced by someone else.
Finally, set the example by apologising to our children when we make mistakes. We teach “I’m sorry” by saying it ourselves. Children should hear apologies from us to others and to them. No one is perfect, including us. What we are also teaching in these moments is forgiveness. We are always finding ways to forgive our children for their misdeeds, they too for us. By modelling the process of doing wrong but authentically making amends through apology and forgiveness, we are teaching emotional intelligence and true compassion. What could be more meaningful?