The art of teaching children to apologize

Recently, I was chatting with some friends with whom I used to teach.  As we were reminiscing we did not discuss not the language, math or science lessons we had taught our students, but rather we shared lessons our students had taught us.  I soon reflected upon one important lesson taught to me by two children and a bike.

One day, while on the playground, Joshua, a spunky four–year-old, pushed Lauren, a shy three-year-old off the bike he wanted. Joshua rode away, happy to have “his” bike while Lauren was left crying for “her” bike. I very quickly intervened and gathered Joshua and Lauren to my side.  When I brought the children together I had every intention of requiring Joshua to apologize to Lauren. However, when I looked at the expression on Joshua’s face I hesitated. Joshua had a smug grin on his face. Clearly, he felt he was right and any apology from him would be meaningless. Lauren was sad and also angry at what had happened and any apology she would have heard would not have been accepted.

"When not freely given, apologies are empty, meaningless, and humiliating for all involved."

Should adults force children to apologize? Are we actually teaching our children to lie about being sorry when they may not be sorry at all? Are we teaching children to say the words in hopes the feelings will soon follow? Does simply saying the words, “I’m sorry” fix everything? These were questions I began asking myself. I pondered these questions for a while and decided I didn’t have the answers. This soon led me to clarify a goal I had for my students. My goal was to instill in the students a sense of empathy for others while also teaching strong communication and conflict resolution skills.

In working toward the goal I realized that, for me, forced apologies were pointless and possibly detrimental. When not freely given, apologies are empty, meaningless, and humiliating for all involved.  I decided that forced apologies close the door to communication and teach children to avoid conflict instead of learning to peacefully resolve the issues at hand. Instead of focusing on the words I began to focus on the meaning of truly being sorry for a wrong-doing.

Moving toward this goal took time, extra effort and patience.  I created an environment in which it was safe to acknowledge mistakes and discuss the emotions of everyone involved. I brought children together to facilitate the dialogue to identify what each child was feeling and describe what happened. I modeled empathy and used the language of sincere apologies and of forgiveness. Slowly I began to see children following my lead. They began to communicate their wants and needs clearly and listen to one another when someone was upset. The classroom became a place of trust, open communication, sincere apologies and forgiveness.

I am happy to report that Joshua and Lauren resolved their conflict peacefully and they rode off together for a school year filled with fun and laughter. Meanwhile, I learned a lesson about apologies and forgiveness.