“I’m sorry” has become a controversial phrase. A recent Huffington Post article claimed that young children were developmentally unable to empathize, thus making “I’m sorry” nothing more than a lie. This injunction against forcing children to apologize went viral.
While the science behind the Huffington Post article is questionable, many parents have certainly wondered whether an automatically shouted, “I’m sorry,” is more of a way to escape blame than to accept responsibility. Should parents and teachers make children apologize? At what age is apology meaningful? And is there a right and wrong way to apologize?
Why Should Anyone Apologize?
First, it is important to consider the purpose of an apology. Contrary to statements made in the Huffington Post article, the purpose of an apology is not really to accept blame. Rather, an apology is meant to repair a possible broken relationship. English has many phrases that serve merely as social constructs. For example, adults often use “How are you?” as a greeting without wanting a long explanation of how someone is feeling. Just as often adults answer, “I’m fine.” when they are anything but. Similarly, “I’m sorry” is a linguistic phrase that serves a ritual social function.
Parents generally agree on the social purpose of apologies. Dr. Craig Smith, a researcher at the University of Michigan, surveyed 483 American parents, the majority of which felt it important for children to apologize following harm on purpose or by mistake. In fact, 88% of the parents said that they would ask their child to apologize if he or she broke another child’s toy by accident. Their responses show that adults believe an apology is a way to make another person feel better and to express empathy rather than expressly accepting blame.
Do Children Understand the Social Importance of Apologies?
There is evidence that children view apologies in the same way as adults – as a way to repair relationships. In another study, Smith and his colleagues told children that another child was going to mail them a pack of “really cool stickers.” However, when the children opened the envelope supposed to contain stickers, they found an empty sticker sheet and a note from the “other child” saying that he or she knew they were supposed to share the stickers, but used them all instead. Some of the notes included an apology, while some did not.
Children who received the apology letter reported feeling better, viewed the other child as more remorseful, and viewed the other child as nicer. In fact, children who received the apology were just as likely to rate the other child as nice as was a control group of children who did receive stickers in their envelopes.
There is evidence that children (at least those older than 5) view a spontaneous apology as more sincere than one prompted by an adult. In another study, Marissa Drell and colleagues had one child knock over a block structure being constructed by another child. After knocking over the tower, the child offered an immediate apology, offered an apology only after prompted to do so by an adult, helped rebuild the tower, or did nothing.
When interviewed about the incident, children reported feeling better only when they received help from the transgressor in rebuilding the tower and said that they believed the other child was truly sorry only when the apology was spontaneous. However, in the restitution situation as well as both of the apology situations, spontaneous or not, the child who had his/her structure ruined shared blocks and continued to engage the other child in play.
The takeaway is that while restitution is the only action that made children feel better, apologies – sincere or not – did serve to repair the social relationship.
How Can Parents Help Children Apologize?
Based on the research, apologies are an effective tool in repairing harm to a relationship, even for children as young as 2. At toddler and young preschool ages, parents can model effective apologies for their children. For example, if a 2 ½ year old knocks over her brother’s blocks, the parent can say, “Oh, Susie is sorry for knocking over your tower. Come on, Susie, let’s help Johnny fix the tower.” Adults should encourage children to include restitution as part of all apologies.
As children progress into the preschool and early elementary years, parents can encourage more and more independent apologies from children. When adults give young children a scripted structure for the apology, appropriate modeling and plenty of opportunities to practice, an apology becomes an automatic social structure by elementary school.
Children need to understand that adults are not trying find out who did what so they can get in trouble, they are trying to make the wronged person feel better. When it is understood that an apology is not about blame, it makes sense to teach children to apologize – even when it may not be sincere.