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Why I Don’t Teach My Kids to Say They’re Sorry

Just before the 'smack'

Moments before the ‘smack’

This little boy smacked my daughter hard across the face today at the playground.  (Ah, the playground… if ever I need fuel for a blog topic).  The little boy’s father, who was hovering closely behind said, ‘No!  Simon, bad boy!  Say you’re sorry… Siiiimooonnnn…’ the dad said, as he raised his eyebrows, ‘Say, ‘I’m sorryto the little girl’.  The boy, of course, did not say he was sorry.  Whether he was too young to articulate his ‘sorry‘ or not, I don’t know.  But, what got me was the look on the little boy’s face that said, ‘Hey, I just smacked someone across the face… I can do this again and again and again, and all I have to say is, ‘sorryand it’s OK!’

Where did this culture of saying ‘I’m sorry‘ to get you out of trouble, come from?  It’s not like the playground smacking incident is the first time I’ve seen kids (or adults) use ‘I’m sorry‘ to get out of things.  As a high school teacher, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ve seen my fair share of, ‘Duhhhhrrr… sorry miss… I don’t have my homework… sorry miss… I didn’t have time to study for my test… sorry miss… I didn’t mean to come to school high and puke all over my desk (true story, it happened in my class once)’.

Really?!  Is that all you’ve got?  Come on and take responsibility for your actions!  Tell me, ‘Miss, I didn’t do my homework because I don’t LIKE doing homework and I’d rather be doing XY and Z instead.’  Tell me, ‘Miss, I didn’t study for my test because I’m really going to be an artist and I don’t CARE about doing science homework because to me, it’s irrelevant.’ Tell me, ‘Miss, I came to school high because I’m desperately trying to escape reality and I’m so stressed and I have no way to cope with what’s going on in my life right now.’  Say whatever,  but DON’T just tell me that you’re sorry, because it really tells me that you have no idea that the action you just took has any consequence to your life in general.  Do you see what I’m saying?!

Ok… sometimes you actually should say that you’re ‘sorry‘. Like, if you run into someone in the grocery store, an ‘oops, I’m sorry‘, is definitely in order.  Certainly, there are times when anyone makes a true mistake and then you do feel, well and truly, sorry.  Of course, then you say, ‘sorry‘.  But, what about when a kid is forced to say, ‘I’m sorry‘.  Apologize and then what?  What does it mean?  When my girls do something to somebody else, rather than force them to say, ‘I’m sorry‘, I tell them that what they just did has certain consequences.  How did it make the other person feel?  Is he or she ok? Did it break something and make it unusable?  Will that other person want to come near you again? What can we do to prevent this from happening in the future?  Most importantly, I teach them what they are supposed to do instead!

For example, when Margo (3 1/2) rips a toy out of her little sister’s hands rather than saying all the time ‘Give it back and say you’re sorry‘,  I explain to Margo how she might feel if someone ripped a toy out of her hand.  Or, I might tell her that if she waits until her sister is finished playing, then she can have a turn too.  Or, I might even teach her some people management skills, and say, ‘why don’t you give your sister something else that she wants to play with even more than what she’s playing with now?  Then you don’t even have to take the toy from her, she’ll happily give it to you in exchange for the other one‘.  Or, sometimes, I let them sort it out themselves and let the toy-yanking-out-of-hands and inevitable crying happen.  Other times, I don’t feel like fluffing around and I bark out, ‘Give the toy back now, stop taking things from her, it’s not nice!‘.   I never tell her to just ‘Say you’re sorry‘, because I’m not sure how saying she is sorry will make it better for either party involved.

To me, saying ‘sorry‘ is just lip service.  Actually, in some cultures, the term ‘sorry‘ is rarely used because it is considered awkward and insincere. Of course, I’m not bashing anyone for ‘actually‘ teaching their kids to say sorry.  I certainly say ‘sorry‘ because it’s the expected thing to do in any misshapen incident.  In fact, if I had been the parent of the smacker kid, I most certainly would have apologized profusely to the other child and to the parent…  But, if I had been the smacker’s parent, after saying the ‘sorrys‘, I would have then told the smacker what to do next time… how to be gentle and kind… how smacking other people can make them feel sad or that smacking can hurt others.  I would have told the smacker that you need to treat people’s body and space with respect. (I also would have done things like look at the kid’s diet and life style and made sure that he was getting enough loving connection time, to find the route of the aggression).  I would have told the little boy that that if we smack like that again, then we can’t do fun things, like go to the playground.  Above all, I would have taught the smacker that saying ‘sorry‘ is nice, but it’s not all there is to the story!

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14 Responses »

  1. Great advice! Really helpful seeing as my little one is starting to ‘experiment’ with adult’s reaction to certain things he does. Thank you!

  2. Great post. Thank you for exercising many mind a bit.

  3. I think there is a middle ground.

    Children need to be taught to DO sorry not SAY Sorry . . . . Saying and meaning sorry in the correct social context, comes from actually understanding why you need to say it.

    Good post really, I and my wife were on the receiving end of sorries last night, after some 20 something child completely ruined our evening . . .Grrrr

    • I absolutely agree that children need to learn to say ‘sorry’, as it’s the socially acceptable thing to do. But, it’s certainly not the end of the story! ‘Sorry’ to hear about your ruined evening! Sounds pretty hairy!

  4. I work with kids and sorry is all I hear when they do something bad but I always explain “you hurt so-and-so and that’s why you need to say sorry” among other explanations. Love this post because so many kids say sorry to get away with bad behavior.

  5. I must say i agree but not completely. With our daughter we are trying to instill both apologizing and making the behavior right, accompanied with discipline to teach what behaviors are simply not tolerable. For example, if she chooses to hit her mother, she is swatted on the back of the hand(not hard enough to hurt mind you, but firm enough to get her attention) and then told to apologize. if she chooses not to apologize she is then put in time- out ( good old fashoined nose in the corner face the wall time out we all grew up with) and asked every two minutes if she is ready to aplologize. this usually only lasts a round or two of time out before she does as instructed. it may seem a bit old fashoined, but i assure you it is very effective.

    • Thank you for your response. I guess we all have our different parenting techniques… But, I personally, have never used that sort of discipline with my children, and never done time out because I’ve never seen the need for it. I’ve never thought of myself as ‘disciplining’ my children purely because I see that we can teach them social responsibility in other ways. Having said that, both my girls have learned very fast that biting, kicking, hitting is totally out of the question and they have learned very quickly how to be well behaved without old fashioned discipline. I get comments all the time on how pleasant they are. All I had to do was to redirect their actions and tell them to be gentle instead and show them what being gentle is, as in touch nicely. Also, keeping an eye on exhaustion or tiredness levels, or if they’ve had some junk food that is making them act crazy.

  6. Mark Rego Monteiro

    I see your frustration with the inadequacy of saying sorry, and the powerful anger about adult patterns in society. I tell my son to say he´s sorry, then ask why, and am engaging in spiritual/religious teaching. I´m a social justice activist, and all of that, and am learning how and what to communicate under unusual circumstances since I moved to Latin America.


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