As one does, the other day I was watching the kids playing on the local playground. There were other kids there and at one point while climbing a ladder, a small boy accidentally stepped on a girl's hand and she started to cry.
Hardly unusual but what happened next left me speechless.
The boy, who was probably only about three, climbed down to the girl and asked, "Are you OK? Can I get you a band-aid?"
She then wiped her face, said no, and they both went back to their games.
I looked at their mum with a quizzical expression and she said, "I don't make the kids say 'sorry'. Sorry doesn't mean much without an action to make things better."
For me, a typical parent who tends to force apologies from his kids for any little bump or whack, this was a pretty different approach. I just give the kid my angry face and shout, "Hey, what do you say?" Then, when they mutter their insincere "sorry", all is good. Yeah I know, parent of the year.
But this mother discovered this new approach from a book by Heather Shumaker called, It's OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids.
In this book, Schumaker writes:
Young kids sometimes fool us. They can mimic "Sorry" and even cry when another child cries, but most children are not capable of being sorry yet. Children differ -- you may have an early bloomer -- but most children simply lack the emotional and cognitive development to feel remorse. Remorse requires the ability to take another person's perspective and fully understand cause and effect. These skills are still emerging in young children. Expecting young kids to say "Sorry" teaches them nothing more than a misguided lesson in sequence: kick, say "Sorry," move on.
So what do we do instead? Shumaker shows us a simple and effective process:
Bring Everyone Back Together: When kids think they're in trouble, they run. Or shut down. So you need to put your arm around the "offender" and guide them back gently while explaining that even if it was an accident, we need to address it.
Reiterate Exactly What Happened: Even if what occurred is obvious, young children still need it spelled out so that their heightened emotions aren't in control. Just state the facts, "You stood on her finger".
Describe The Consequences: Talking about the outcome of the action helps kids develop empathy. Again, you need to be specifice specific: "See, she's crying. There's a scrape on her finger. It hurts."
Role-Model The Empathy You Are Trying to Develop: Ask "Are you OK?"
Swing Into Action: While little kids don't really understand remorse, when given direction, they are excellent at taking action. They can easily get an ice-pack or band-aid or clean up a mess. Help them take responsibility for their actions.
Give Reassurance: Have the child who caused the accident promise that he/she won't do it again. Have them say something along the lines of , "I'll watch where my feet are from now on". This shows that they are learning and that the incident is leading to a better future.
More Role-Modelling: Now obviously, we do eventually want kids to say "sorry" when they make a mistake. But these apologies need to be meaningful. Which means you need to make sure that in your own life, your own apologies are meaningful. Yep, we're making parenting hard again because you have to acknowledge the consequences of your actions and take steps to make things better. For example: "I'm sorry I forgot your school hat today. I know you would have had to stay inside. I've put it on the morning list so I don't forget again."
Soon, you kids will say not only be saying "sorry" without prompting, they'll mean it.