By: Joe Newman
Most parents and teachers regularly ask children to apologize for things they’ve done. When one child hits another I’ll commonly hear, “Apologize to your brother! There’s no hitting allowed. Now say you’re sorry.” Then the one will sheepishly say to the other “I’m sorry.” Children quickly learn that apologies are a cheap currency with which they can pay for their inappropriate, impulsive, or bad behavior.
I was in a third grade classroom the other day and saw six girls in two groups playing a math game when suddenly I heard a girl say to another, “You are so stupid! Why did you join my team?” The teacher overheard the exchange and said, “Abi, we do not allow that kind of talk in here! Do you want to sit on the bench for recess again?” Abi shakes her head ‘no’ and the teacher continues, “How would you feel if someone called you stupid? You owe Sophie and me an apology. I don’t allow those words in my class.” Abi then says, “I’m sorry Mrs. Johnston. Sorry Sophie.” When the teacher walks away Abi turns to the other girls in the group, gives them a little smirk, then resumes playing the game.
In the above interaction it’s as if the teacher had said to Abi, “Because you behaved in a way I find inappropriate you’ll need to do two things. First, lie to me. Second, lie to the girl you’ve insulted. Okay, now continue playing.”
We need to understand that children operate from a perspective that is based on cause and effect. What children find most important is social power –not right or wrong, or good and bad. When Abi insulted Sophie she was throwing around her social power, not acting out of some misunderstanding of the rules of the class. Abi knew the rules of the class better than the teacher.
See, Mrs. Johnston did “allow those words”; she just required a small payment in the form of the lie “I’m sorry”.
Model sincere apology but never solicit it or force it.
We feel compelled to get apologies, yell, prove the child wrong and us right because we suffer from the delusion that the world operates by the laws of right and wrong rather than the laws of cause and effect.
We see our children as a projection of ourselves. When we see them do something bad it is a personal reflection on us.
Don’t Require an Apology
Asking a child to apologize as a consequence is another form of moralizing and manipulation. Action consequences should not include requiring the student apologize or say they won’t do it again. Whether a child is actually sorry has to do with whether they were motivated to do the behavior and if they will be motivated to do the same behavior again in the future. Children take actions based on self-interest. It is up to the adults to ensure that problem behaviors do not serve the interests of the child. When the adult has done their job of making sure inappropriate behaviors have no reward, then the child will naturally stop doing them.