Between ages three and five, most children begin to understand that they have made a mistake, when they make one. They are also familiar with the word ‘sorry’ and when and why it is used.
In a study titled, ‘When the happy victimizer says sorry: Children’s understanding of apology and emotion’, published in The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, researchers Craig E Smith et al came up with this finding - that children indeed understand all the emotional aspects of an apology as early as age four.
As parents, we tend to defend our children and cover their flaws. It is time we quit giving excuses for our children’s misgivings and helped them understand when they have wronged someone or made a mistake. Apologising and owning up to one’s mistakes is a life skill that needs to be inculcated right away and in the right way.
Listed below are the four keys to making a well-rounded apology. You must take the time and guide your child through the steps.
Admit a mistake: Most parents agree that this is the hardest part of it all – getting their child to admit to the mistake. Children sense their parents’ displeasure and immediately resort to denying. When you see that your child is reluctant to admit his mistake, it is natural for you to get angry and resort to punishing your child. This is not the right way of solving the problem. The key here is to not lose your cool. It is only when your child sees that you are level-headed but serious that he would actually listen. Take some time and explain to your child why his behaviour is not correct. Refer to value systems that you may have inculcated in your child from early on. For example, when your child lies to you about pulling his sister’s hair, you can remind him that, “In our home, we use our hands to help and not to hurt.” If there aren’t any set systems and rules, now is the time to make a few.
Use words of apology: A simple sorry is sometimes hard to elicit from a stubborn preschooler who does not think she has made a mistake. In such situations, you should take your child aside and explain why and how she was wrong. Even if your child isn’t convinced about her mistake, persuade her to apologise using words that convey remorse like, ‘Sorry’, ‘Please forgive me’, ‘I won’t do that again’. Let your child understand that using words of apology makes unpleasant situations a lot better. As a parent, do not forget to role model this yourself. Be quick to apologise when you make a mistake.
Correct themselves: Children find it uncomfortable to apologise or admit their mistakes mostly out of fear, and partly out of stubbornness. They fear the disapproval of the parent or person in question, and the punishment that may ensue. In such cases, reassure your child that it is alright to make a mistake but he needs to admit it, apologise and correct himself. As a parent, it is your responsibility to help him correct himself so that he does not make the same mistake again. Also, analyse whether it’s a one-off case or happens repeatedly. You may have to make some changes accordingly so that such situations do not recur. For example, if you find your preschooler often disobeys or acts cranky, see if there are external triggers for such behaviour at school or at home. It could be just a call for attention. Ask yourself if you are paying enough attention to your child? Is your child insecure and missing you? You will see a big difference immediately in your child when you work towards eliminating certain triggers. Don’t forget to acknowledge and praise your child if he genuinely makes efforts to not repeat his mistakes.
Make things better: Teach your child to go the extra mile after uttering words of apology. Encourage her to make a card or share her chocolate to show she is sorry. Facilitate positive interactions with the person she has hurt. If your child has hurt her friends, set up fun play dates or fun activities with the child in question to smoothen out things further. You may also have to talk to the other parent and apologise on your child’s behalf. Make sure your preschooler is present when you do so.
And, while you teach your child the different steps of saying sorry, do not forget to teach him to also graciously accept a sorry from someone who has wronged him. Help your child focus on all the good times and get over the hurt. By doing so, you will be helping your child create a better world, one apology at a time.
Anitha Bennett is a freelance author who has written books for children from preschool to preteen levels. She also conducts workshops for parents, teachers and children.