We all want kids to care about one another. We want our children to grow up to be kind, empathic humans who feel a sense of caring for one another. We want our classrooms to be inclusive spaces in which a sense of caring is alive, not just with words, but in lived experience. We want children to feel remorse when they hurt someone, and to see beyond their own perspective. We yearn for this as this is how we can grow a more caring, peaceful world.
And yet this is not always the reality. We are increasingly seeing kids who are shut-down: Whatever. It’s no big deal. Fine. I said sorry, ok? Can I go now?
When we see this, it may make us feel desperate to teach these kids that this is not how we should be towards one another. We may wish to rush in and teach them a lesson. Push them to say sorry. All of this is with the best of intentions as we strive to support children to grow into empathic, caring adults.
But forcing a child to say sorry will not grow their caring feelings. Saying sorry is not the same thing as feeling sorry.
When we push a child to say sorry, they might not feel sorry and may feel like they need to pretend that they are sorry in order to avoid our disapproval or not get punished. If pushed, they may mutter a ‘sorry’, but if this is counter to their actual feelings, their sense of resentment against the hurt party (and us) may actually increase. Their ‘sorry’ was only done for us as the parent or teacher.
So, what can we do?
We can help children connect to their own desire for amends
We can help the child connect to their own desire for amends, which may more naturally arise in a space of warm support. I may say something along the lines of, “When you bit Sam, it hurt him. It can be hard to say sorry sometimes, but this is what we do when we hurt people and feel badly about it. You can decide if, when, and how you are going to do it.
We can make it easy to say sorry
“There are different ways to say you are sorry. You can draw him a picture, or do something for him, or simply say you are sorry. You can do the apology your way. I am not going to watch you do it. I’m leaving this up to you.” I then leave it at that, and I don’t check in about it.
As the mature adults, we can provide the hurt party a sorry
Some kids will apologize; others won’t. For those who don’t, that choice doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t sorry — they may find the act of saying sorry too hard. The feelings of being sorry might still percolate inside them, which will support their emotional development. And for the children who don’t feel sorry, well, forcing them to apologize wouldn’t have helped them grow either.
It is true that the hurt party does need an apology, so as the responsible adult, we can take that on ourselves and make sure that they do get an apology, at least from us. “I’m so sorry that happened to you. You can come to me anytime you need to when you are hurt. I am here for you.”
We can model
We can apologize to the children in our care when we have done something we wish to express our remorse for. In this way, children get to experience the feeling of being on the receiving end of being given a sincere apology and having their feelings acknowledged. As well, by us apologizing when we have transgressed, we normalize the vulnerability of offering an apology and attuning to another.
We can remember the goal
Our goal should not be to get a child to simply say sorry, but rather to create the conditions in which a child feels sorry. Growing empathy takes time as it is an inside out job. Empathy requires that kids have a safe space to feel. If we ever feel panicked that a child seems emotionally stuck, we can remember that lasting change takes time. There is no quick fix, no matter how tempting that may feel. If we want a child to develop caring and empathy, then we need to help children connect to their authentic emotions and nurture the child’s caring spirit. And (big breath) trust in the process.
Check it out!
My colleague, Dr. Deborah MacNamara recently published the children’s book, The Sorry Plane. In this delightful book, the mother explains how we can’t say sorry if we don’t have any sorries in us. But when our sorries return, as Molly’s ( the main character’s) eventually do, we can give them to others.
The Sorry Plane carries a profound message about the importance of connecting with our authentic emotions. It highlights how a good sorry is one that you mean from the heart and how we adults can preserve a child’s caring spirit.
Check out this wonderful book along with companion resources and a helpful poster infographic with tips on how to Say Sorry Like You Mean it.
PS: Did you miss my last blog post? It’s a story I am very fond of. Check out Heart and Mind Lessons from Aanmitaagzi on Big Medicine Studio.
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