Empathy. It is perhaps one of the most important emotional functions that a child needs to learn.
Kids come into this world believing that the sun, moon, and stars revolve wholly around them. For a while, parents nurture this – which I believe is a special part of the parent child bonding experience. However, eventually there comes a time when children need to be taught that the feelings of others MATTER.
Many toddlers learn quickly, and often as a result of their own personality make-up, that saying mean things or doing things they aren’t supposed to makes them feel bad. They feel guilty, because in their heart of hearts they don’t wish to hurt anyone’s feelings. But other toddlers need to be taught.
I have learned with my children that simply forcing them to say “sorry,” when they are wrong isn’t really the best way to build empathy.
For one thing, it becomes really, really easy for a child to simply apologize for their behavior. They smack their little sister, they get in trouble, and then like robots they say “SORRY”. The next day, they smack their little sister again. When mom gets on to them they whine, "Well, I said I am sorry!"
The problem is that just saying sorry, doesn’t mean much unless there are emotions behind it.
Recently, my ten year old and I had a serious disagreement and she behaved horridly and hurt my feelings with her actions and words. She was punished – rightfully so – and spent the remainder of her day in her room. Truth be told, I was angry and had little to say to her. As the day wore on and turned into evening, I wondered if she would apologize or feel badly. That night when I kissed her goodnight, she still never said she was sorry. I was heartbroken.
This of course made me worry about her development of empathy, and her willingness to succumb to personal pride rather than have the courage to admit she was wrong and apologize.
That afternoon, when I picked her up from school – all the rocky waters between us calm – she leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek and told me that she was really sorry for how she acted the other day. Admittedly, it felt good, and I was proud of her for realizing that it was her responsibility to say sorry all on her own.
More importantly, I know that SHE MEANT IT.
She didn’t just immediately say "sorry" because that was the right thing to do, or because I told her she needed to. She said "sorry" because she truly felt an apology was in order.
With young kids (6 and under) I see so many educators and parents simply force their children to spew the words, "I’m sorry," before the child has had time to think about what they did and why it was wrong. When a kindergarten bully is constantly mean to other children and then forced to feel that simply saying sorry is the cure all, he or she isn’t really learning much about compassion or empathy. He or she is just following directions.
Saying sorry and meaning it is something that starts in the home.
Believe it or not, it is also something that children learn by example. When I overreact to a situation or do something wrong I ALWAYS admit my mistake and apologize to my kids. It’s okay for mom to make a mistake and be wrong too. It shows your children that the idealism of perfection is unrealistic. After all, no one is perfect, not even mom!
Do you apologize to your children when you are wrong? How have you taught your child to be empathetic towards others? Do you demand apologies or allow your child to come to that resolution on their own?
What do you think? Teaching ‘I’m Sorry’