Kids absorb more from the way we do things than what we tell them to do. If I give my kids instructions about how to say please and thank you and then don’t bother saying it myself, the habit is not going to stick. When it comes to teaching kids to say sorry, it’s again something that won’t happen if I don’t model it as their parent.
But what makes a good apology and why does it matter? Why should we teach our kids how to apologise properly from a young age?
The ability to say sorry is at the heart of every strong relationship. We all do things wrong and apologising well is one half of what brings reconciliation with another person when that happens. Saying sorry will therefore be an enormous part of any kid’s life as they grow up. Learning how to say sorry properly and exercising this practise from a young age, will give kids the tools they need to ensure they build resilient, meaningful relationships with people – be it at school, work or friendships – throughout their life.
But there are other lessons that saying sorry teaches.
Saying sorry, and really knowing what that means, offers a great lesson for kids in humility. Admitting you’ve done wrong puts others on a pedestal. It acknowledges that there is a right way to treat people and that when we don’t, there are painful consequences for others that we should be concerned about. It teaches kids that there are others around them who matter at least as much as they do. And that is the essence of humility. When they’re saying sorry, they’re acknowledging that other people are special and deserve to be treated well.
Saying sorry properly also teaches kids how to take responsibility for their actions. When you admit you’ve done something wrong and can name the impact it’s had on someone without caveats, blame or implying the fault is really the other persons (I’m sorry you felt…) you’re taking responsibility. This is such a vital lesson for kids, because owning your actions and the decisions you make is an incredible driving force in life. If you’re prepared to take responsibility, you’re admitting that what you do matters, and if what you do matters, you have the power to change things. Teaching kids to take responsibility for their actions when they do something wrong is a gateway to building their confidence, teaching them that they can make a difference with the effort they put in and the choices they make.
At times it’s tempting to gloss over apologies with kids. It can get awkward when they decide not to say sorry. It’s a hard thing to admit you’re wrong and it requires confrontation in order to make sure an apology happens. In those situations it can be tempting to apologise on behalf of our kids when they do something wrong. But to gloss over it or to apologise on their behalf misses the point - saying sorry is good for your kids. Saying sorry isn’t just about making the other person feel better, or putting things right. It’s about acknowledging your own actions were wrong. It can only really happen if you’ve said sorry yourself. If you duck it, you miss the opportunity to teach your kids about valuing other people and the power of taking ownership
At GRASP we’re about helping kids learn skills when they’re young that will stick with them for life. We want kids to form great habits when they’re older. Whether it’s apologising for what they’ve done wrong, saying hello to adults and showing kindness even when they don’t feel like it, or just learning to take care of their personal hygiene, we’re big on giving them the tools to learn and try for themselves as soon as possible.
But there are so many poor examples of apologies from adults in the world around us. It can be hard to get it right ourselves, let alone give our kids great role models for how to say sorry. Bad apologies are typically partial efforts that we all know instinctively aren’t apologies at all. They tend not to be admissions of wrongdoing, they’re just efforts to make a difficult situation go away. And while that’s the model we see around us, it’s not one we should want our kids to look up to.
So what does a great apology look like? Here I have to give great credit to Duke Kwon (@dukekwondc on twitter), who helps beautifully capture what a healthy apology looks like with these simple points.
These are such great rules of thumb. Remind yourself of them as a parent when you’re saying sorry to your kids or to your partner. Repeat them to your kids, correcting their apologies to help reinforce these points. Make them the pillars of how you say sorry to each other as a family.