‘Sorry’ is up there with ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ as one of the early important words we teach our kids. For a while though, apologies can be a difficult concept to understand. Saying sorry doesn’t bring forward magic that can change what has happened, and it doesn’t necessarily ease the pain. So what does it do, and how do we encourage an apology that is heartfelt, compassionate, and empathic?
Research from the University of Virginia has explored the importance and meaning of apologies for six and seven year olds. At this age, children are learning and developing at a spectacular rate. One of their very important jobs is to learn the social skills that will help them build and maintain relationships throughout their lives.
As part of the research, a group of children and an adult research assistant were asked to build towers out of plastic cups. Just before a child was about to finish his or her tower, the adult ‘accidentally’ knocked over the child’s building. This was followed by either an apology from the adult or nothing, then the adult left the room.
Initially, both the children who received an apology and those who didn’t reported feeling hurt when the adult toppled their tower. Later on though, the importance of the apology started to become clear. The apology didn’t immediately soothe any broken hearts, but it did go towards repairing the relationship. When deciding how many stickers to give the adult who had knocked over their tower, the children who received the apology were more generous than those who didn’t.
According to Marissa Drell, the lead author of the study, “Even though an apology didn’t make children feel better, it did help to facilitate forgiveness. They seem to have recognised it as a signal that the transgressor felt bad about what she had done and may have been implicitly promising not to do it again.”
The apology was important in healing the relationship, but the relationship was strengthened even more when the adult helped the child to repair the fallen tower. Actively getting involved in putting things right seemed to undo some of the damage. It did this by demonstrating sincerity and a genuine wish to heal the relationship and help the person who had been hurt.
Even though children might understand that saying sorry is important, they might not understand why. When we look at the world through their eyes, their confusion makes sense – how can one little word ease the pain and make things right again?
An apology might not fix the hurt, but it’s important for building trust and strengthening the connection later on. Encouraging an apology is important for another reason – it’s an important way to nurture empathy in children. Empathy is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence and healthy relationships, and anything we can do to foster it in our children from a young age is important. Here are some powerful ways to encourage empathy and a heartfelt apology.
1. Encourage them to look through another lens
Empathy is all about being able to look at a situation through another person’s lens. This isn’t easy – building empathy takes time and practice. To nurture it along, ask your child to talk to you about how the person who has hurt might be feeling. Alternatively, ask how he or she might feel if the same thing happened to them.
2. Let them know the power of their words
For children, the discovery of their own power is important and will happen over time. Part of this discovery will be learning the power of their own words to build or cause breakage. Explore with them how they can use their words in powerful ways, such as by being kind, compassionate and empathic. ‘What might happen if you say sorry? What might happen if you don’t? Which one would you like to make happen?‘ Or, ‘What would you like to see happen now? What could you do to help that along?’
3. Take away the shame
To learn from any behaviour, it’s important that children feel safe enough to explore, experiment and ask questions – but shame will always interrupt this. Try to minimise shame by focusing on their behaviour, rather than who they are. Instead of, ‘You’re so naughty,’ try ‘When you drew on her soccer ball…’
Another way to minimise shame is to normalise their imperfections. It’s important for them to know that we all have them, and that they are as loved (and as loveable) now as they were before they did what they did. ‘You’re such a great kid. I know you didn’t mean what you did, but when you do something that makes someone else sad, it’s important to try to put things right. Let’s talk about how you might be able to do that.’
4. Help them understand why their apology is important
Apologies can be a tricky concept. Whether you’re the giver or the receiver, any difference they make often isn’t immediate or obvious. Nurture their understanding about why they are important. “Saying sorry probably won’t stop people hurting and it definitely won’t fix broken things, but that’s not what an apology is for. Saying sorry is to let the person know that you care, that you realise you made a mistake and that you will try really hard not to do it again. People don’t apologise because they’re naughty or bad, they apologise because they’re brave enough to admit when they’ve made a mistake and brave enough to try to make things better.”
5. And for the ‘diplomatic’ apologies – to the one who they think has it coming
Children will often have a very keen sense of justice, so the idea of apologising to someone who (according to them) doesn’t deserve it can send things to a whole new level of difficulty. An important learning for children is that apologising and doing the ‘right thing’ is more about who they are, and less about who the other person is or what that other person might deserve (or not). “I know she keeps telling everyone that you’re not really invisible when you put on the cape. I really understand why that’s so upsetting for you, but it’s not okay to tell her that she is frog snot. What would someone kind and brave and strong do right now?”
It’s not easy being a kid. There’s so much to learn, and some of those lessons won’t be obvious ones. Fortunately, childhood lasts for a while so there’s plenty of time for them to discover the best ways for them to be. Any opportunity we can give them to learn these lessons, or to try them out, will help them to discover their own magic, and learn the difference they can make with their words and actions.
Article originally published on Karen’s blog here.
Hey Warrior by Karen Young
Kids can do amazing things with the right information! Understanding why anxiety feels the way it does and where the physical symptoms come from is a powerful step in turning anxiety around. Anxiety explained, kids empowered. Purchase Karen’s book here.