Behavior & Environment

Teaching Kids the Meaning of an Apology

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Apologies can be a really hard concept for kids to grasp. Sure, teaching the words “I’m sorry” is pretty easy, but helping kids understand the ideas of regret and forgiveness is much more difficult. Thankfully, most things kids apologize for are small infractions and are the perfect training ground for the lessons around apology. Let’s look at the key lessons:

1. Take another’s perspective. We often mistakenly assume that kids can naturally understand how another person feels. Sympathy and empathy are thought of as instinctual. Often a child can understand what others are feeling, but sometimes they really have no idea, especially when how they’d react is very different than how the other person is reacting. Hearing “the teams are full” on the playground might be devastating for one child and not an issue for another child. When your child hurts the feelings of another, skip “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” and ask instead, “How do you think Benny felt when you said/did that?” Help your child explore how Benny, with his temperament, personality and experiences, might feel. Being able to imagine things from someone else’s perspective is the beginning of real empathy.

2. Keep ownership of the feelings with the upset child. When your child does or says something that upsets another child, remember your child didn’t cause those feelings and isn’t responsible for them. This may be a hard one to wrap your mind around because we talk about upset in terms of cause and effect, but every person is responsible for their own reactions and feelings. This is a critical lesson for kids to learn because it allows them to develop healthy relationships later on. Using the example above, the child who said “the teams are full” didn’t cause the first child to feel rejected and isolated. Those feelings were a result of the child’s emotional and social make-up.

3. Model making amends. Apology isn’t just about saying, “I’m sorry.” When we hurt another person, the words are important but so are making amends when possible. That might be a child helping a friend put together the toy that child broke, giving a friend a big hug after saying something hurtful to them, or doing a sibling’s chores after making them late for their game.

We’d live in a different world if everyone was comfortable making heartfelt apologies. Let’s move towards that kind of place by helping our kids master this important social/emotional skill.