This Is The One Thing You Should Never Force Your Kids To Say, And It Might Surprise You

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Sometimes it’s another child at the playground, a friend at a birthday party or a cousin at a family gathering. Often, it’s a sibling. Your young child, who you know can be heart-meltingly sweet, gets upset about some slight — a toy they wanted, a turn on the swings — and they snatch something from another child’s hands, or shove or hit them.

“No!” you cry, hot with embarrassment that your child would behave this way. You run up to them, grab their hands, crouch down to look them in the eye. And then what? You can’t undo the hurt they’ve caused, but you have to do something, right?

So you say what feels like the appropriate thing, likely the same phrase that your parents used with you when you misbehaved as a child: “Go say you’re sorry.”

It’s a concrete thing for your kid to perform as a consequence, but is this the best way to deal with the situation?

The problem with forced apologies

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In a recent Instagram post, therapist Deena Margolin of the “toddler expert” duo Big Little Feelings explains that the problem with forced apologies is “you’re not actually teaching them to feel sorry, to take ownership, to show compassion.”

We’ve all seen children giving inauthentic apologies — perhaps mumbled with eyes to the ground or belted out in a mocking sing-song.

Sure, you can make a kid say sorry — but can you make them feel it?

“Children who are let off the hook with a simple ‘I’m sorry,’ essentially get a free pass,” Suzanne Barchers, chair of the education advisory board for ed-tech company LingoKids, told HuffPost.

“Often, they aren’t sorry — with an altercation that involved hitting or taking a toy or being ‘sassy,’ the hurtful act is often calculated and perhaps a bit satisfying to the perpetrator.”

If your child seems to get some enjoyment from what they’ve done, and/or their false apology, don’t worry that there’s something wrong with them. Like most kids, they’re still figuring out what it means to see things from another person’s perspective, and shaming them won’t help.

In an email, Margolin and parent coach Kristin Gallant, the other half of Big Little Feelings, told HuffPost: “Forced apologies can leave your child feeling ashamed — like they’re a ‘bad kid.’ Here’s the thing: these feelings totally inhibit any real learning and growing!”

They also don’t guarantee that your child will arrive at an apology on their own the next time.

“Forcing an apology is quick and easy. However, it doesn’t get at the underlying issue,” Barchers said.

How to help kids feel empathy and genuinely apologize

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If you want your child to feel sorry for what they’ve done so that their apology rings true, Margolin and Gallant suggest you try something along these lines:

“She’s crying right now. How do you think she feels?” (Pause to give your child time to respond.) “Yeah. Really upset. Hitting is never okay. Let’s go over and see how we can help her feel better and say sorry.”

Note that the ‘sorry’ is in there, but not without some groundwork to make it actually count.

Your child might not be able to see the other child’s perspective right away. Don’t worry about this too much, either, Barchers said. “Asking the child to describe the other child’s point of view is difficult because children are very egocentric for many years.”

You may have to give your child additional prompts, such as noticing that the other child is crying, or asking how your child would feel if someone hit them.

This way, when you approach the child who was hurt, your child will understand what it  “feels like to take ownership of your actions and compassionately apologize,” Margolin and Gallant said.

Barchers added that you should “encourage the child to expand” beyond the word sorry, as in: “I am so sorry. I should have asked if we could take turns,” or “I am so sorry. Can we talk about why I got so frustrated that I yelled at you?”

If your child is little, or reluctant to speak, you can model what a genuine apology sounds like. Margolin and Gallant suggested that you say something like: “Are you okay? I see you’re feeling really upset. We’re sorry. Hitting is never okay. Is there anything we can do to help you feel better?”

Understandably, you may also want to apologize on your child’s behalf. This is okay, Barchers said, as long as it comes in addition to, not instead of, your child’s own apology. “Apologizing on behalf of your child to the other misses a learning opportunity for your child. And it takes your child off the hook, indicating that they don’t have to take responsibility for misbehavior.”

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If there was a conflict between the two children, such as over a toy or whose turn it was, this could also be a moment for you to ask the children how they could’ve handled the situation differently.

Your example teaches them how to handle such situations. “One day, your voice will become your child’s inner voice,” said Margolin and Gallant.

This includes times that you need to apologize to them. Perhaps you lost your cool and yelled, or didn’t give them attention because you were distracted by something else.

To make your apology count, you need to go beyond “I’m sorry.”

“Putting the apology in context gives it more meaning,” Barchers said. She gave the following example: “I’m sorry I couldn’t play a game with you. I truly didn’t have time. I have an idea for tomorrow. I would like you to help me with the laundry. Then we would have time for the game.” 

Margolin and Gallant offered another: “I’m so sorry that I yelled at you. That probably made you feel really scared. That probably made you feel really sad. I’m really sorry — you don’t deserve that. I’m going to work on not yelling when I have an upset feeling. I love you. You didn’t do anything wrong.” Note that here, you are acknowledging your child’s feelings and validating them.

When your child is apologizing to you (or a sibling), it often makes sense to talk about the underlying issue and how to prevent it in addition to the apology. Barchers gave the following example: “I accept your apology. However, I want you to tell me how you are going to avoid forgetting to leave your shoes in the way because this isn’t the first time I’ve tripped over them. Let’s figure out a plan.”

Finally, there are some mistakes that even a heartfelt apology can’t smooth over. Barchers recalled, “My son wanted to hold a family heirloom — my great grandfather’s pocket watch. It was on display on a shelf. I told him he could hold it but not play with it. Later he was roller skating — with the watch in his hand — and he dropped it.”

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The watch was irreparably damaged, she said. “I was angry. We had a long discussion about how some things can’t be undone — sorry doesn’t work. I had to learn to forgive him, but he had to work to realize he had deeply disappointed me.”

This conversation, as difficult as it was, still couldn’t resolve the situation — but that doesn’t mean their talk was without value, Barchers said. “As I think back, he never did something so foolhardy again, so perhaps it was useful.”This article originally appeared on HuffPost.