Say You’re Sorry!

Is forcing your kids to apologize a bad idea?

Last week, BET founder Bob Johnson made sure to say he was “truly sorry” when he apologized to Barack Obama for his “uncalled-for comments” (aka, apparent allusions to Obama’s drug use). Which somehow only made it seem more likely that the Clintons forced him to apologize in the first place. Begging forgiveness is an art. Even when it’s carefully considered, as this effort must have been, it’s hard to pull off gracefully.

Which leads me to a question: Is it good parenting to make your kids say they’re sorry to other kids whom they’ve wronged? There are two contexts in which I tend to do this. The first is brother-on-brother combat between my 8-year-old and almost 5-year-old, Eli and Simon, in which one seems to be the clear perpetrator. My theory, when I think it through, is that even a grudgingly muttered, “OK, sorry,” clears the air. It’s one way to strive for a modicum of family civility. And after all, growing up is sometimes an exercise in learning to go through the motions, and sometimes a genuine feeling can follow upon an action that’s repeated until it’s instilled. If I tell my kids to say they’re sorry 10,000 times, I can hope that someday the grudging mutter will turn willing and sincere.

The other time I hear myself barking “Say you’re sorry!” is when I’m with a friend and his or her kids, and one of my kids is being obnoxious, and I’m embarrassed. This one I can’t really defend: It’s a cheap way to signal that I, for one, have some manners; that I know my kids are being trolls and won’t let them get away with it, at least not entirely. Forcing an apology is a lot easier than imposing a real punishment. So, it suits for small- to medium-sized infractions that I feel like I should address (or rather shouldn’t be seen letting go). Especially, if I’m honest, toward the end of a long day.

My husband doesn’t believe in any of this. The second kind of “Say you’re sorry!” feels like a lame bid for social approval to him (it is). The first kind he thinks is useless, because it’s not from the heart. To which I’ve responded that apologizing is hard for adults to do, too, and the more practice our kids get, the better. Or so I used to say, that is, because now I think there might be a better strategy. Jane Nelsen is the author of Positive Discipline, a series of books about using “non-punitive methods to instill valuable social skills,” as one of them says on the back. In a chapter about teaching toddlers to share, Nelsen instructs parents against “forcing a reluctant apology.” “Doing so does not encourage sharing,” she says. OK, that makes sense for toddlers. But what about older kids like Eli and Simon? I thought Nelsen might see a role for the forced apology for them.

Wrong. “I don’t think you should force anyone to apologize at any age,” she tells me over the phone. “That’s teaching kids to lie. If they’re not sorry and we make them say sorry, just to make us feel good, that’s not about empathy.”

Nelsen is all for seeking forgiveness. She just thinks the idea needs to come from the kids themselves. Or so they should think. First, you sympathize with them about how they’re feeling: What was it that led Simon to spew an insult or Eli to send him sprawling? Nelsen calls this “connection before correction.” Once you’ve done your empathizing, then you can ask the leading questions that you hope will get your kid to do likewise. How did they make the other kid feel? What could they say to make her feel better? Maybe: “Sorry?”

Nelsen’s approach makes room for my notion that you have to practice saying “sorry” to get good at it. What she’s adding is a way to help make that practice involve feelings of contrition along the way. She calls this “operating from an internal locus of control.” My husband calls it speaking from the heart. My friend Rachel, who recommended Positive Discipline, points out that you can also walk the “sorry” walk yourself, by “making sure you apologize to your children if you think you have done something wrong, or letting your children see you apologize to your spouse.” (Of course, just before she suggested that, she found herself making one of her daughters apologize to the other.)

This all sounds good. And yet I couldn’t help sighing to Nelsen that some parents (i.e., me) might see her approach as a long way to the same destination. To which she retorted (nicely), “Did someone tell you that children didn’t take time? Oh my.” Point taken.

When I got off the phone, I wondered if it would feel manipulative to ask Nelsen’s leading questions to Eli and Simon. Which led me to admit to myself that what I was really worried about was feeling silly. Asking a rehearsed set of questions feels, well, rehearsed. You have to put yourself through the paces along with your kids.

But you know what? I’m going to try it. Here’s why. A few weeks ago, Simon and Eli were on vacation with their cousins, one of whom, Matthew, is a year older than Eli. Inevitably, Eli and Matthew sometimes went off to play without Simon. One night after dinner, Simon was tearful and angry about this desertion, and Eli was defensive and mean. I started reading them a story to calm them down before bed. Simon interrupted. “We need to have a peace circle,” he said, or whimpered, rather. Eli rolled his eyes and scrunched his eyebrows. I’d never heard of a peace circle, but figured this was one more benefit of Simon’s Montessori school, and I got Eli to agree to come over and sit with us.

We made a circle, and I asked if we should hold hands. “No, we talk about our feelings,” Simon said. “Eli, I just don’t know what to do! I want to play with you and Matthew and you don’t even notice me. …” He was off, in a fairly coherent burst. When he was done talking, Eli said—calmly, in contrast to his previous defensiveness—”Well, Simon, sometimes I don’t notice you because I don’t see you. You’re behind us and because you’re smaller I don’t see your head. So you have to tell me you’re there. Sorry.”

I wasn’t sure I believed that Eli couldn’t see Simon, exactly. But Simon seemed to buy it. “OK,” he said. “Does anyone want to say anything else?” I asked tentatively. “No,” Simon said. “Read now.” Fight over. Wound salved.

This was my children operating from their internal loci of control, and speaking from their hearts. Eli’s “sorry” was unprompted, and it wasn’t even the main event. The boys proved that the less instruction from me, the better. Nelsen says this shows the value of another strategy she advocates: the weekly family meeting, in which disputes become agenda items to be written up on a list on the refrigerator when they can’t be resolved easily otherwise. She says that reduced fighting in her family by 80 percent. I’d take half of that result and call it a wild success. Maybe Simon will bring that idea home from school, too. Or maybe I can work up to offering it myself.