A while back I read about a day-care center that was no longer going to make their kids say sorry. They felt it was an ‘ineffective punishment’ and since the kids didn’t understand or mean ‘sorry’ they felt they were not really helping the kids get along. There’s a little bit of truth here based on a lot of false assumptions.

I am sure the kids don’t mean what they are saying (true) but:

  • Saying sorry isn’t a natural response – kids won’t just do it one day
  • Saying sorry won’t change behaviour
  • Saying sorry isn’t a punishment.

To Say Sorry is a Heart Thing

To say sorry is a relationship building phrase – it needs to come from the heart. That means it needs to be based on a belief, on an understanding, as well as on an emotion. We cannot just say it, parrot fashion, and expect it to fix things. We cannot be forced to say it – well we can, and parents often do, but it won’t change anything, because it is just words, the heart hasn’t be touched. And in this regard the DayCare center had it right.

When something goes wrong in a relationship – be it a swipe of the hand of a toddler, or a snatch of a toy, or mean words, or not wanting to hangout with someone – something has gone on in the heart. Generally a selfish something! The heart has lost the belief that all people are special, that we are to love all people; instead the heart is focusing on self – I’m not happy, I want that, I’m important, I don’t have to!

Simply being forced to say sorry, won’t teach children to be other centered, or help them in empathy or compassion. Though our voluntary words come from our heart – the words we are made to say are just academic – they come straight out of our mouth, not the heart.

This is where the day-care center made an assumption – because it isn’t heart-felt, then it isn’t real, then it doesn’t need to happen. Wrong.

When our children can say sorry from their heart we will see change in their behaviour and relationships restored. But they have to be taught how to say sorry otherwise they get confused between regret and repentance.
[Tweet “Forcing our children to say sorry ignores the heart work that is needed.”]

The Heart can be Taught

As parents, we need to teach the heart.

  • We need to teach that others are special. In our family we taught that God made everyone, and he loved everyone and asks us (tells us) to love others too. This is establishing the value in our kids’ hearts. The values they in their heart, will dictate their choices. If this value isn’t there in the first place, then there is no premise to hurting people or saying sorry.
  • We need to teach that our actions have consequences. That when we love, there is harmony, and when we are selfish, there is broken relationships, or hurt feelings. I used to explain this to my kids by putting my two fists together, thumbs upwards (it makes a heart-ish kind-a shape) and explain that this heart was like our two hearts together – but when they were mean or selfish, the heart was broken.
  • We need to teach that we are responsible to fix broken relationships. We need to teach our kids that they can do something about it, they can mend relationships and help people feel better, help bring our two hearts back together as friends.

Saying Sorry is not a Punishment

This is where people start thinking that saying sorry is the punishment. It isn’t. Saying sorry is a mending word. A whole lot of heart-thought needs to happen before anyone can say sorry. If we miss this process then we are just going through the motions and there will be no change in our kid’s behaviour.

A punishment, or consequence, is to help our kids understand the importance of the value they have abused or missed. When our kids broke a relationship with their selfish actions, the punishment was that they could no longer enjoy that relationship, and because relationship with each other was the foundation of all we did, they couldn’t really be a part of that activity either. So in our family, when they were selfish and unrepentant, they had time away from their activity and away from the people they were doing that with. During this time, I would visit with them regularly, helping them process their heart. When they were ready to put things right, that is when they went and said sorry, put things right and then continued with the activity.

Saying Sorry Reflects the Heart

Saying sorry reflects the heart – it doesn’t make the heart change.  We can only truly say sorry after the heart has changed.

There are three steps to getting a broken relationship right again:

  • Confess what they’ve done (with honesty)
  • Acknowledge that it was wrong (and why it was wrong)
  • Ask for forgiveness

This looks like: I am sorry I yelled at you, that was wrong of me, I wasn’t showing you respect, will you please forgive me?

Of course little kids can’t verbalise all this, but that is what we are building up towards.

With 3-5 year olds, I would pose them questions:

  • What did you do?
  • Why was that wrong?
  • What happened when you did that?
  • How can you fix that?

One question at a time – giving them time to reflect and be ready to give honest/heart answers. And as a side note, if your older child cannot process their heart and come to an apology, then they too need these guided questions.

For the toddler, the 1-2 year old, I would say something along the lines of: That was not kind, and you need to sit here till you can be kind (or often I say “have a happy heart”). Meanwhile they are crying their little eyes out cause you have removed them from what they were doing. But they understand, and can quickly have a change of heart, though they are unable to communicate it in any other way than a soft body, a smile on their face and a willingness to cuddle.

Saying sorry is a process and when they go through this process – when they think about their actions, when they think about how that affected other people, when they think about what they can do to make it right – and then do something about it – there will be change in their behaviour. This change happens, not because they said sorry, but because they have recalibrated – they have reviewed their actions in light of their values, they have seen the consequences of their actions, and have decided to get it right.

Regret and Repentance

There is a difference between regret and repentance. Regret is sorry that they were caught, or inconvenienced. Repentance though is a heartfelt sadness that they don’t want to do that again.

This heart felt sadness, leads to an apology, and a desire to do it right next time. (To be honest, toddlers probably are only regretting. They don’t have the where-with-all to fully process the moral implications of what is going on – but it is a start. This is why things happen over and over and over with a toddler.) If there is no change in an older child after a heart process and an apology, then they may have been able to say sorry, but they haven’t really had a heart change.

Three things are happening when our older kids keep doing the wrong thing:

  1. They haven’t really meant it when they’ve said sorry – they need more heart reflection time, maybe they need to see and understand the implications of their selfishness more.
  2. They don’t know how to act differently; they don’t have the skill to make a different choice. We need to teach them
  3. They don’t have the self-control to make the right choice. We need to help them.

Just because kids don’t mean it or don’t change after saying sorry is no reason why we should not introduce this relational key and start helping our kids to build strong healthy relationships. It won’t just happen, kids need to see it modelled, then we need to teach it, help them practice it and then expect it. Relationships in our family and beyond will be better off when we all take responsibility for our actions towards others.

Over to you:  How have you taught your kids to be truly sorry?

2 Comments

  1. Hannah

    Wow. Loved this. This has reinforced a book I was reading recently. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Heather

    So good! Thank you.

    Reply

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Further Reading:

What do I do if I’m not Sorry?  Sometimes our kids are really not sorry at all – how do we teach them through this attitude?

Confession is an Important Part of Saying Sorry:   Confession is about acknowledging what you did and taking responsibility for it.  Confession is a key part of saying sorry.

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When our children can say sorry from their heart we will see change in their behaviour and relationships restored. But they have to be taught how to say sorry otherwise they get confused between regret and repentance.

When our children can say sorry from their heart we will see change in their behaviour and relationships restored. But they have to be taught how to say sorry.

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