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The Effective Use of Apologies with Young Children

January 26, 2010

Learning how to apologize is a vital skill for healthy emotional development and for successful relationships.  There will inevitably be hurts, wrongdoings, and misunderstandings in any relationship involving two people.  The hurts are to be expected because humans by nature are imperfect. The hurts in and of themselves don’t necessarily determine whether or not a relationship is harmed in a significant way, but how those hurts are dealt with (or not) and repaired (or not) influences the success of the relationship.

Most of us want our children to learn how to apologize effectively.  But when and how we should expect our children to apologize isn’t always clear.  For a better understanding of this, I first turn to what constitutes a proper apology.  Last year my book club read The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.  My favorite part of that book was where Pausch described the three parts of a good apology.  In fact, I liked this part so much that I made sure everyone in my family read those two pages of the book!

Pausch wrote that proper apologies include 1) What I did wrong (acknowledgement of the offense); 2) I feel badly that I hurt you (remorse) and 3) How do I make this better? (reparation). Too often young children are forced into apologies that they don’t understand and/or don’t mean. While the motivation of most adults behind the forced apologies is usually filled with the good intentions of teaching children to accept responsibility for their behavior and to make amends, sometimes a forced apology is worse than no apology at all.  If the offended person is not left feeling apologized to, the relationship will remain unrepaired.  And if the apologizer doesn’t really understand their own apology, they are not really learning the skills they will need for healthy relationships.

To grow into effective apologizers, young children first need to learn about their effect on other people. They also need to learn about feelings and emotions – both their own that can lead to hurtful behavior and others’ in response to their actions.  When children can begin to make the connection between their own behaviors and actions and others’ feelings and behaviors, then they can begin to make proper apologies.

This is not a quick or easy process.  With my own children, this is a topic we have had to revisit many times over the years. And it’s important that we as parents remember to apologize to our kids when appropriate as well. We have the opportunity to model effective apologies.

What have been some of your successes or obstacles to teaching your children how to apologize?

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