TEACHING EMPATHY TO YOUNG CHILDREN: DO NOT TELL A CHILD TO SAY THEY ARE SORRY!
What does it mean when you say, “I’m Sorry”?
Saying “I’m sorry” is an act of apology. It’s telling someone you feel badly for hurting them in some way--for saying or doing something offensive –for breaking–pushing–being mean– or not understanding how another feels.Sometimes it’s on purpose–sometimes accidental.
That said when appropriate, we WANT our children to sincerely feel sorry and apologize. We WANT them to take responsibility and ownership for their actions. In the real world this doesn’t always happen.
“Say You’re Sorry!”
Often without thinking an adult will say, “Say you’re sorry!” What if the child is NOT sorry? He/she is still too angry, doesn’t want to get into trouble, or is feeling defensive. Making a child say they’re sorry, when they are not, doesn’t help the injured party feel any better nor does it teach the offending child a positive life lesson.
How to Teach Children
Do we want our child to grow up to be a person who says, “Well, I SAID I was sorry!” Making children say they are sorry only to satisfy an adult, or to not get into trouble, can create the habit of avoiding taking responsibility for actions. So then, what can we do?
1. Investigate. Find out what happened and what happened before that.
2. If an apology and restitution is indicated–and the child does not sincerely apologize on their own–WE should say we are sorry.
Example: Tommy, I am so sorry that Bill tore your picture. I can see it took a long time to make it. The child with the hurt feelings and the torn picture hears words of empathy-he knows that someone understands how he feels. The offending child has the benefit of good role modeling. He has heard words of empathy.
3. Next, have the hurt child tell the other child how he feels.
Example: "I feel bad that you tore my picture. It took me a long time to draw and color it." If Bill says something such as–“I’m sorry I ruined it; it was wrong for me to do that”… you’re on your way to a good conflict resolution!
4. Next ask Bill what he can do about it? Some ideas he may come up with or say are:
- I can help tape it.
- We can do another one together
- What can I can do to make it better?
The lesson here is for children to learn that some things are right and some are wrong. If wrong, we help children figure out what to do to fix it and/or what to do differently next time. The above are some responses for which we hope. If the aggressor takes ownership, responsibility, and discusses alternative behavior, nothing more is needed.
If you need to talk to the aggressive child–be sure to send the other child away (use privacy).
I'm Sorry But...
When a child misbehaves and is asked, “Why did you do that?” You may get a reason. When a reason is given–he/she may feel the behavior is validated. He/she may say—I’m sorry BUT which in essence is giving a reason that blames another and does not taking ownership nor responsibility for actions.
• He is saying, I’m sorry but he was bothering me.
• I’m sorry but he was humming loud.
• I’m sorry but he was looking at me funny.
When a child says, “I’m sorry BUT…” he is again not taking ownership but putting the blame on someone or something else. This isn’t an apology.
Let’s work together to have children take ownership of the issue and give them a good role model so they become productive members of the center and society.