Forcing Kids To Say ‘Sorry’ Is An Exercise In Futility

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sorry-childWe were at the park last weekend, when a larger child pushed passed my son bypassing his place in line, and slid down the slide. No big deal, some kids are pushier than others and kids need to learn how to navigate those scenarios. My kid is super easy going, he barely noticed. The kid’s mom did though. She started yelling, “Say sorry! Say sorry! I mean it, say sorry now!”

The kid grumbles a barely audible, “sorry,” then proceeds to grab a ball out of some other kid’s hands and run away with it.

I don’t tell my child to say “sorry,” because I don’t have to. Somewhere along the line he picked it up from someone else. Every time he does something wrong and I tell him to go to his room and explain why he’s in trouble, minutes later he comes creeping into the hall saying, “I want to say sorry, mom.” When he does something wrong, he usually doesn’t automatically say “sorry,” he says it when he sees I’ve noticed what he’s done. “Sorry” isn’t really how he’s feeling, he just says it because he thinks it will either (a) stop him from being punished, or (b) lessen the punishment. I don’t know where he gets that idea because I repeatedly try to explain to him that “sorry” means nothing if you keep doing the thing you’re apologizing for.

Apparently there is another reason parents tell their kids to apologize: because it well make them “feel better.” I never really considered this argument. Does that imply that kids default to a state of no remorse and must be convinced that remorse is a positive emotion? A 2013 study aimed to show why people actually choose not to apologize. Tyler G. Okimoto, one of the authors of the research told NPR that parents who tell their children that saying sorry will make them feel better may not be telling the whole truth: “We do find that apologies do make apologizers feel better, but the interesting thing is that refusals to apologize also make people feel better and, in fact, in some cases it makes them feel better than an apology would have,” Okimoto said in an interview.

From the NPR article on the study, “Our conventional approach, especially with kids, is to force people to apologize. But if people are reluctant to apologize because apologies make them feel threatened, coercion is unlikely to help — that is, if a sincere apology is hoped for.”

I’m not sure how to teach a child how to “feel” sorry rather than say it, or to say it as a result of feeling it — not just because they think they are in trouble. I feel the same way about forcing a child to say “sorry” as I do about forcing them to hug someone — if they are not compelled to do it on their own they shouldn’t have to. I’m not a parenting expert, but I prefer to teach my child not to do things he has to apologize for, rather than teach him that there’s a one-word solution when he misbehaves. Knowing that not saying “sorry” when he misbehaves may actually empower him throws even more of a wrench in my apology theory.

Basically, if you want to force your kids to say sorry — so be it. But you may not actually be teaching them anything useful at all.

(photo: Getty Images)