How to teach your child to say “I’m sorry”

May 6, 2019

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from Joe Carter’s new book The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents: Help Your Kids Learn Practical Life Skills, Develop Essential Faith Habits, and Embrace a Biblical Worldview.

Saying “I’m sorry” shouldn’t be difficult. But as pop music reminds us, it is often “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” The difficulty is apparent in the rise of the non-apology apology—sometimes called a nonpology or fauxpology—in which we offer a form of apology in which we are not sorry for our actions but for the fact someone was offended (e.g., “I'm sorry you feel that way”).

Before we can teach our children how to say they are sorry we may need to learn or re-learn the hows and whys of apologizing.

Why we need apologies

The purpose of an apology is to seek reconciliation and restoration with someone we’ve hurt or have wronged. By sincerely asking for forgiveness we take an essential step in mending a rupture, however small, in our relationship with another person. Even if we know the other person will forgive us, it is important we ask them directly.

A prime example from the Bible is when Joseph's brothers asked him to forgive the evil they had done to him by selling him into slavery (Genesis 50:17). Although Joseph knew God had used their evil to bring about good, their acknowledgement helped restore the broken relationship in their family.

Developing the ability to deliver an adequate, relationship-restoring apology is challenging. Unfortunately, that is only half the process. The other is to help your child understand why the apology is necessary. Too often we parents believe we can merely command an apology (“Tell your brother you’re sorry!”) and we have fulfilled our obligation for restoring order. But such forced apologies tend to make the child resentful and leave the person who was wronged feeling bitter over the insincerity. The result may even be worse than before the forced apology because it can cause an even greater rift in the relationship.

While it is more time-consuming, it is necessary to prod the child into understanding why they need to apologize. Here again, a formula will be helpful—especially since this may become, for most parents, a daily process.

Tips for teaching children

The Elements of the Apology

Beth Polin, co-author of The Art of the Apology, defines an apology as a statement which includes one or more of six elements:

• An expression of regret—this, usually, is the actual “I’m sorry.”

• An explanation (but, importantly, not a justification).

• An acknowledgment of responsibility.

• A declaration of repentance.

• An offer of repair.

• A request for forgiveness.

To help your child incorporate each of these components into an apology it’s helpful to put them into a specific framework. Former elementary teacher Joellen Poon recommends the following four-point formula:

1. I’m sorry for… This part should be specific rather than general. Instead of making a generic statement ( “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”) the child should make it clear they understand why the apology is needed (“I’m sorry for saying I didn’t want to be your friend.”)

2. This is wrong because . . . This part of the apology is more complex because it includes three of the elements from Polin’s framework: an explanation, an acknowledgment of responsibility, and a declaration of repentance. For example, “This is wrong because you are a nice person and I do want to be your friend. I should have never said I didn’t.”

3. In the future, I will . . . Poon recommends using positive language, and having the child say what they will do, rather than what they won’t do. For example, “In the future, I will be more loving in how I speak to you.”

4. Will you forgive me? The apology should end with a recognition the person who was harmed has to provide their own input and acknowledge, however tentatively, the slight will not have a long-term effect on the relationship.

Transform Their Justification into an Explanation

Many times we don’t apologize because we believe we were justified in acting as we did. Help the child to understand their action from the perspective of the person that was offended or wronged and then help them explain why they were wrong.

Have Them Explain Why It Shouldn’t Happen Again

The process of acknowledging, repenting, and repairing is easier when the child can see the bigger harm their action would have if they continued to do it in the future. For example, “When you hit your little sister it not only causes her pain but will cause her to not feel safe around you. A big brother is expected to protect his little sister, not hurt her.”

Ask Them to Come Up with a Solution

Once the child understands why they are wrong and the can see the broader context of their actions, they are more likely to be able to understand for themselves why they need to apologize. Ask them what they should do next to resolve the situation. If they still don’t understand why they need to express regret it could be a sign of larger issues that need to be uncovered.

Show Appreciation for Their Apology

Tell the child you appreciate their doing the right thing. Yes, it can be annoying giving a child praise for merely restoring the status quo and for rewarding them for doing what they should do automatically. But remember you are attempting to develop a lifelong habit and that positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in ensuring your child develops the ability to reflect on their actions and to deliver sincere apologies.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24