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

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.

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