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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Parenting Hints: DON'T Tell him you're sorry!

This is a bit long, but was a topic request from a workshop participant who was trying to remember what I had said about this topic. "Tell him/her you're sorry" is a common parental command that I don't like. In fact, it is one of the many topics in a book I am currently working on with Pat Miller. [The book addresses the problems parents, particularly foster and adoptive parents have with raising children who are chronically dishonest...lying and stealing]. 

The assumed intention of requiring a child to say they are sorry is to build/teach remorse for wrongdoing.  Unfortunately, in our experience, it seldom does.  More often it seems to encourage, sometimes even require, a child to lie.  We have all heard a child spit out a sarcastic... "sor-reeeee" or a barely audible, mumbled "sorry"or a four syllable epithet..."soo-ooo-ree--eee."  None of those even remotely demonstrate remorse.  And almost certainly, all are lies.  They don't indicate a child sorry for doing wrong.  They show a child, if anything, sorry they were caught doing wrong.

The irony is that the same parents who struggle to teach their children to tell the truth, in the same household, often insist that children lie by requiring them to say they are sorry. My dictionary says that "sorry" is to "express a feeling of remorse or regret." The same dictionary gives that dictionary as the first meaning of "apology." However, it also gives a second definition of apology that is the one I try to use in parenting. The second definition of  "apology" is  to "acknowledge that something is not as it should be, especially if you are embarrassed or guilty."

So, in my house, I do not require someone to say they are sorry. Further, if they do not demonstrate remorse, but give an insincere "sorry" they are punished for the lie.  So what DO I do?  I require the second definition of apology.  I require them to acknowledge the wrongdoing.  Only when they truly are sorry are they allowed to say they are sorry. What they do instead is tell the person they offended: "What I did was wrong."  This is a true statement.  It does not require the child to be remorseful, only to acknowledge their wrongdoing.

First of all I need to be sure that the children know what they did was wrong, and exactly how or why it was wrong. Even with older children I sometimes have to check to be sure they understand what they did that was wrong.  But once they got the hang of it, and I adjusted, I really like the benefits of this approach.

1- By saying "What I did was wrong," the child is required to take responsibility for what they did in a more concrete way than with a simple "I'm sorry."  

2- By saying "What I did was wrong," the child is being required to tell the truth rather than being tempted or coerced to lie to make things easier. [NOT a lesson we want to teach!]

3- By not allowing them to lie by saying an insincere, inaccurate "I'm sorry," the household standard of truthfulness is reinforced.

4- By providing them a truthful alternative to the easier, commonly stated lie, the children can begin to learn that it is possible to find truthful alternatives to common social lies

5- Once this practice is consistent, when a child truly is sorry and you hear those words, they actually have meaning.  [in my house we also have "action apologies" that I will talk about next Thursday.] 

Unless you are starting fresh with a child, it takes time to switch from "I'm sorry" to "What I did was wrong."  At first it may seem a bit circuitous and awkward, but I think you will find that the above advantages pay off in huge dividends.  Besides.... it eliminates most of those annoying, sarcastic, "sorry" retorts that can be flung around so casually. Try it!

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  1. I really love this article. My 8 yr old step-daughter often will apologize when she thinks we are upset at her... she will sound completely sincere but when you prompt her as to why she is apologizing she will make excuses. "I am sorry that you thought that I said this, which is not what I said" and so on. I will not accept an apology unless she explains to me what it is that she understands was wrong.

  2. Good for you Adrienne! And I am so glad that you like my approach... sometimes people get very upset by it. Others think I am splitting hairs. But, it really does make a difference and clarifying what was wrong is crucial. Thank you for sharing!

  3. What a great idea! I'm going to try that with Stinkpot. I already ask him to tell me what he is in trouble for.

  4. Hey Penny... I am writing tomorrow about the second half of what I do... a "Sorry Box" that was a life saver [and face saver] for my kids. If I remember Stinkpot is around 3 and has at times sounded like my cherub that had/has a "opposition disorder"... read defiant. Our sorry box system gave her a way of apologizing without losing face, once the rage storm had passed. If he will talk to you when you ask what he has gotten in trouble for, that is a good thing! Mine would just yell and get more and more angry if I asked anything about her actions in that moment. Glad you liked the idea!