Kids poke, push, prod, hit, knock over, grab, snatch, and hurt each other all the time. Rather than just accept these incidents as part of your child’s growing-up years, you can treat them as opportunities to teach him the values of humility and taking responsibility for his actions.
“All parents would like their children to grow up to become good, productive members of society and to know the difference between right and wrong,” says Ann Princess Grana-Nespral, M.D., a physician specializing in adult psychiatry, with sub-specialty training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Butuan Doctor’s Hospital in Mindanao. “Teaching your child how to say sorry helps him learn these rules.”
“Because kids are naturally self-centered, teaching them to apologize will help them realize that their actions can harm [and affect] others,” adds Jill Chua-Sy, operations manager of Gymboree in TriNoma and Eastwood Mall, and mom to Ethan, 7.
It’s never too early “Teaching a child to apologize is a continuous process,” says Dr. Grana-Nespral. “You can start him early, while he is still a baby, and carry on until he reaches adolescence -- or even beyond.” How you teach contrition, however, differs according to the child’s age.
For Babies “Developmentally, a six-month-old child does not understand his actions yet,” says Dr. Grana-Nespral. “He is still learning about his body. When he knocks something over, he learns [the concept of] cause and effect and that his body is able to manipulate the outside world.”
So when your baby tips over his feeding bowl and makes a mess, or when he bats away a playmate’s toy, don’t coerce him to apologize. You can, however, introduce the concept to him as such: Mom: “Oops, Alex pushed his bowl and made a mess. Let’s clean this up.” Dad: “Sorry, Mom, Alex made a mess.”
“This short conversation enriches the language and social development of your child,” emphasizes Dr. Grana-Nespral. “He learns what is right and wrong. Eventually, as he grows and understands more, he will imbibe his family’s rules and values. He learns to say sorry because he hears his parents say sorry for certain things.”
For Toddlers At this age, a child begins to assert his individuality and test the limits of what he can and cannot do. “This is a good time to set [boundaries], to explain what is allowed and what isn’t, and to be consistent about it -- all in the simplest terms possible,” says Dr. Grana-Nespral.
Remember: Toddlers have a short attention span, so when they do something wrong, you should correct it at once, lest they forget the offense. “It may still be lip service -- meaning your child really doesn’t want to say sorry -- but he needs to learn the process of apologizing. He needs to say sorry if he did something wrong because it is the correct thing to do,” explains Dr. Grana-Nespral.
Learning to say the words “I’m sorry” will also help your little one understand what it means as he grows older.
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Since toddlers also like saying no, what happens when your child refuses to apologize? In such cases, you can ask your tot once or twice to apologize. If he really refuses, apologize in behalf of your child, and then take him to a quiet corner to discuss his behavior. By apologizing for his behavior, your child still learns that what he did was wrong. Once he has calmed down, ask him why he doesn’t want to say sorry. “If you force your toddler into saying sorry, it becomes a different battle -- it may not be about the apology anymore,” says Dr. Grana-Nespral.
For Preschoolers Older children may be too shy or embarrassed to apologize. In such cases, Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What To Say (Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents), suggests that you help your child find ways to show he is sorry. You can say, “You need to help Alex feel better. You pushed him, he fell down, and now he has an ouchie. Come, let’s get some ice for Alex to put on his ouchie.” Braun says, “Being proactive -- being able to do something about the harm caused -- is an important step in feeling contrite,” says Braun.
Chua-Sy adds: “An apology is effective when the child knows what he is apologizing for and is sincere about it. It is also important that he knows how [his offense affected the person concerned.]” She adds, “Whenever I ask my son to apologize for his mistake, I have him think about why I’m asking him to say sorry. I also ask him how he thinks the other person feels. Usually, at the second question, he cries kasi alam niya na nakasakit siya. Afterwards, he’ll apologize and I’m assured of his sincerity and that alam niyang may mali siyang nagawa.”
Accidental vs deliberate Whether your child’s offense was deliberate or not, you should always ask him to apologize. It is your actions afterwards that may differ.
If accidental: Let your child say sorry to the one he offended, and then ask him to reflect on why he accidentally committed the offense. For example: While running around the playroom, five-year-old Luke accidentally hit his playmate Matt. Luke’s mom: “Please say sorry to Matt because he fell when you accidentally hit him.” Luke: “I’m sorry I hurt you, Matt.” (When your child apologizes, teach him to own up to his actions by telling him to say what he is sorry for.) Luke’s mom: “Luke, you have to be more careful in the playroom. If you keep running around carelessly, you might hurt someone again.” This teaches Luke that even if he doesn’t want to hurt somebody, his actions may hurt somebody accidentally if he is not careful.
If deliberate: Then there must be a consequence to the action. “Make it clear to your child that just because he said sorry doesn’t mean he’s off the hook,” says Chua-Sy. For example: Five-year-old Luke intentionally bumped Matt while running around. Luke’s mom: “Please say sorry to Matt because you ran into him.” Luke: “I’m sorry I bumped you, Matt.” Luke’s mom: “Luke, I saw you bump Matt. Why did you do that?” (At this point, your child will tell you his reason for doing so. Whatever the explanation, you should be firm that intentionally hitting/hurting somebody is never right.) “Because you ran into Matt on purpose, you have to sit in the corner for five minutes and think about what you did.”
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When the tables are turned Children should also be taught to accept apologies graciously. If your little one gets hit while playing and the other kid apologizes, check your child’s reaction: If he is all right (i.e. not hurt and not in tears), have him respond to the apology with an “It’s okay,” and let them continue playing. “There is no need to force the other child to give a lengthy apology or explanation, or for you to do something to even things out,” says Dr. Grana-Nespral.
But if your child is in tears, then let him cry it out first. “Don’t force him to accept the apology immediately -- a simple acknowledgement will do.” Dr. Grana-Nespral continues, “Avoid saying things like ‘Stop crying, he already said sorry’ because this trivializes your child’s feelings of hurt.”
As with all other values, children learn best through their parents’ examples. “Some kids don’t learn to apologize or take responsibility for their actions because their parents are always the ones taking the responsibility. Others trivialize the consequences of their child’s actions. Doing so teaches your child that he can do whatever he wants because Mom and Dad will always get him off the hook. But when a child sees his parents consistently standing up for their beliefs and apologizing whenever they make mistakes [even to their own children] -- and [learning to forgive as well], he carries this sense of responsibility with him into adulthood,” says Dr. Grana-Nespral.
Don’t raise a pushover There’s a difference between being respectful and contrite -- and being a pushover. The latter happens when your child apologizes only because he is afraid of the consequences if he doesn’t, to the point that he says sorry even for things that don’t require an apology. “This happens when the child doesn’t truly understand what he is apologizing for. This is why it’s important for parents to properly explain to their kids the reasons for saying sorry. It all boils down to how the child was trained to say sorry,” says Gymboree’s Jill Chua-Sy.