Seven Alternatives to Forced Apologies

January 3rd, 2011 by Dionna | 20 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Consensual Living, Gentle Discipline Ideas, Successes, and Suggestions, Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

Playground and play group etiquette often dictates that when your child hurts another child, takes something away, refuses to share, or any of those other behaviors that make parents cringe, you must demand that your child apologize. Even if your child obviously doesn’t mean it.

When Kieran hurts or frustrates another child, I do want to acknowledge and comfort the child who has been hurt or frustrated, but I do not force Kieran to apologize. Instead of teaching Kieran to apologize automatically and without sincere feeling,1 I want to focus more on helping Kieran empathize with others and learn how to play and interact with his friends appropriately.

Here are seven ways to help your child learn both the social niceties of apologies, as well as how to apologize with sincerity:

  1. Connect with Your Child: Try Aldort’s S.A.L.V.E. technique: calm yourself down and let go of your first (often angry or embarrassed) reaction. Give your child some attention; listen to him. Validate his feelings and needs, and empower him to solve his own problems.
  2. Show Concern: Model empathy, both for your child and for the injured child. When you are comforting the other child, do so in a way that your own little one does not feel guilty or ashamed.
  3. Model Apologies for Your Child: Feel free to say “I’m sorry” to the other child. Your little one will pick up on the practice in time. Again, do not apologize in order to shame your own child, just offer your concern sincerely. (“It looks like you are upset because Molly does not want to share her tricycle. I am sorry that you cannot have a turn right now. Would you like to talk about it?” or “Would you like to ride the scooter instead?”)
  4. Change Your Thinking: When you see conflict, take a moment to change the way you view things. Instead of getting upset or panicking, trust that you and your child (or the two children) can cooperate to solve the problem. Look at each problem as a chance to meet everyone’s needs, not as a battle that someone will win and someone will lose. The section in Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids called “Make Your Home a No-Fault Zone (Key 7)” is an excellent guide to help you change your thinking.
  5. Help Her Find Words: Encourage your child to verbalize how she is feeling. Helping her learn how to express herself when she is upset will give her the tools she needs to avoid these types of conflicts in the future.
  6. Label Feelings: Talk about how the other child might feel too – use visual cues – help your child learn to identify feelings in others. (“I wonder how Molly felt when you hit her, do you think she might be feeling sad? She is crying right now.”) Take conflict as an opportunity to help her learn new feelings words. There is a great chapter on identifying and expressing feelings in Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, as well as a helpful list of feeling words you can stick on your refrigerator.
  7. Apologize for Your Mistakes: Parents aren’t saints, we mess up. Daily. We yell when our fuse is too short, we use hurtful words, we talk negatively about our children in front of them. Acknowledge the times you have had poor judgment, the angry, hurtful moments you wish you could take back. Say you’re sorry – and MEAN it.

What other ways can you model and teach how to empathize and apologize?

Photo Credit: doriana_s

  1. To read more about why some parents and professionals do not agree with forced apologies, try The Ethics of Representing Childhood in Western Culture and How Children Learn Manners, both by Naomi Aldort.

20 Responses to:
"Seven Alternatives to Forced Apologies"

  1. I have been policing conflict between my 5 and 2 1/2 year old daughters for months now. It has been stressful and nerve wrecking. Thanks for this post. I’m doing ok with apologizing myself. What I wonder is about all the talking. It just seems like a lot for my young children to understand. My oldest won’t look at me when we are talking. It seems she just tunes me out. Also, how do you train yourself to slow down when things seem to need your help right away. I suppose in reality they don’t?.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Hi Kelli! I find myself (and my hubby) talking too much sometimes too. It would probably be nice to practice using one or two short and sweet sentences – otherwise, our kids will either get confused, lose our meaning, tune us out. Maybe if you stopped to take a breath and rehearse what you were going to say? That will also give your little ones a chance to work things out for themselves, which is always possible (and you’re right – they probably don’t need our intervention as much as we’re dying to give it; giving them the tools to problem-solve is the larger goal, so that moment to breathe/think might be a great tool for more than one purpose).

      As long as we’re not waxing poetic, even toddlers should get the point – they understand so much more than we give them credit for!

  2. Amy

    I agree, people intervene too much sometimes. In many tribal cultures children of all ages play together all day with no intervention and little supervision. The children *go* to their parents when they feel they need parental assistance. I assume much of this works because older children set an example and can sort out small problems with younger children without needing an adult to get involved. Also, the adults in those societies aren’t as busy/stressed as we are and they have to get along amongst themselves, too, for their communities to be successful and set a good example inadvertently.

  3. Violetsouffle   Rainbowsouffle

    I relate to Kelli’s question. We have a situation
    Where our 2year old daughter and the 4yo child I
    nanny are often in conflict. And because my partner works long hours, it’s just me parenting much of the time.
    When he is home, my partner tends to ‘tattle’ about our daughters behavior: “hon, she’s playing with my computer! Can you please stop her?’ so when our daughter gets frustrated, she whines/ tattles to me; ‘mama! He grabbed my computer! My hand is empty! *cue tears*’
    So. What helps most for me is making sure each day begins with some outside time whenever possible. It helps relax us and get us in a better emotional place. When tensions rise, I try to
    Get them Outdoors where they never squabble, but if I can do that because I’m
    Busy or the weather doesn’t permit, etc, I redirect them to creative centers- painting, yoga, stretching, dancing, drawing, play doh, playing with my button stash, playing with silk scarves, helping cook lunch- anything to allow them to put energy into something physical. And it usually keeps me from having to addresstge ‘fighting’ at all, and reinforces cooperative play.

  4. Karen   KarenAngstadt

    Thanks Dionna!
    I love #3. I will talk with the upset child (my own or another’s) about what happened. Just because acknowledging what is going on with feelings and with perception can be helpful.

    I usually don’t make my kids apologize- but I do ask them to acknowledge to me what they see happening. (Does it look like S is upset right now? Do you want to ask S how she is feeling?)

    I also don’t make my kids share everything. We have a few boundaries/rules about sharing: If we bring it with us to the park, playdate, etc it is with the intention of sharing. If we don’t want to share, it stays in the car or at home.

    But I don’t expect my girls to share everything, even with each other (although I like when they do). I read an article in The Mother by Naomi Aldort about genuine sharing- and how adults generally understand the boundaries of sharing between one another. We do generally share food, but not usually cars, and only sometimes clothing- when invited. It shaped my perspective on how children are “expected” to share even their most precious possessions.

    @Kelli, my girls are now 6 and 3 1/2, and I do still sometimes jump into the fray to rescue one or the other. In Aldort’s book, she talks about how our perceptions as adults match our history, but not always the reality our kids are experiencing. My girls do better when I assist them with communicating with each other, but don’t inject my opinion. (In looking closer, I tend to side with my youngest, and I was also the youngest. Probably not a coincidence.) I react better when my kids “fight” with other kids, than when it’s with each other.
    Good communication skills are always an asset, and it gets easier as they get older. Keeping it simple helps for all age groups.

    • Amy

      Karen, I love the idea of making a rule that if it comes out where other children are it’s expected to be shared and if you don’t want to share it you can leave it in the car or at home! Great way to lay out a clear expectation they can understand *before* a problem may arise!

      You’re right, too – adults don’t share everything so we shouldn’t expect our children to share everything, either. We must remember, too, that as sharing is a virtue, so is patience and it won’t hurt the other child to wait for a turn with a toy, either.

  5. Kellie   MindfulLifeShop

    My favorite conflict resolution between my 2.5 and 4.5 year old is a simple phrase, “Work it out.” It just reminds them a lot of the time that there is a solution and that they are capable of figuring it out. Occasionally I will help them to figure out a very emotional conflict, but usually I leave it to them. Even in choosing a book, or something else where we can only pick one, I will tell them that we must all agree on the one, and they figure it out and compromise on their own. They really do have amazing skills that we often forget they possess.

    Another thing I wanted to point out – my father was AMAZING at apologizing. Even when I was a teenager and we would have huge fights about important things, he always apologized to me. If he still felt that he was right, he would say, “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings. I’m sorry that we had a fight.” It really helped me to respect him and to want to work things out with him (much more than with my mother who was always right because she was the adult and who has only apologized to me once in my life, as far as I can remember). It is something that I have carried over into my parenting and even when I KNOW that I’m right that we can’t bite our sister just because we get mad, I’ll still give a hug and say I’m sorry that we had a rough spot this afternoon when we are going to bed at night, or when things are calmer, or whatever. I think it really helps my children to have that respect and connection for me, knowing that they are respected as well.

    • Amy

      Kellie, I think all too often children have trouble working things out because their parents are always doing it for them! Kudos to you for encouraging your children to cooperate without your assistance!

  6. Sarah MacLaughlin   sarahmaclaugh

    YES! I talk about this in my book: What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children. Did I ever send you a copy?? I will be happy to!

    Forced apology = meaningless.

  7. Sarah

    We always focus on the most upset child first. Once everyone is calm we can ‘talk’ about it. When the girls were smaller and less able to listen or talk about something we’d keep it short. Hitting hurts, now A is sad. But you look so angry. Instead of hitting, let’s stomp our feet. Then we’d all stomp around. When out at playgroups and such I’d just stay beside the girls as much as possible and try to diffuse before anything happened to another child. More often it was my children getting hurt or having stuff taken away – then I’d try to help the children deal with it before hte other parent noticed (the parents at the local playgroup tend to yell, curse, and hit).

    I also give the girls as much opportunity as possible to work things out ont heir own. But (at least now) I need to be there as well. “E says…” “A says…” then I paraphrase what they’ve said and say something along the lines of “Hmm it looks like we have a problem, let’s find a solution.” Then I give them the opportunity to come up with ideas. SOmetimes they can’t think of anything, so I offer a solution – sometimes they take it, sometimes they don’t. But in the end an apology isn’t needed b/c they were both respectful of the other and were able to work things out.

    At home We try to model sincere apology. Sometimes that means that ten minutes after I’ve flubbed, when I’m calm, I go over and apologize. Other times it’s more along the lines of opps I didn’t understand ‘I’m sorry.’

    The biggest issue we have is that DH has a VERY tough time handling ‘negative’ emotions. Particularly in me. So if I’m upset about soemthing – anything – whether he was around or not, he apologizes. And it honestly drives me nuts. He has no clue what he’s apologizing for half the time, and he just wants the emotion to be over. And now the girls are doing it to. If someone is upset one of the girls will come over and apologize. They don’t even understand what they’re saying, but they hear it so much when either they or myself are upset, that they automatically do it.

    the good thing is my DH is now aware that he does it, and is trying not to. But it’s a long road yet, his family was firmly of the mindset that negative emotions didn’t exist. And they all pretend they are always happy and everyone profusely apologizes for everything – even when they don’t mean it at all.

    It also shows that even if the words used aren’t what I’d prefer, the intent behind them shows that the girls are developing empathy and want to help others. It’s still a long journey, but we’re heading int he right direction.

  8. marclimon   marclimon


    Thanks for the post. I feel that a focus on sincerity when teaching children empathy is often neglected. Words are only words without context and that includes “sorry” as well.


  9. Ashley   ashleympoland

    I’m curious, but how do you handle the parents of the other child — how likely are you to encounter a parent who is angry that you haven’t made your child apologize?

    I always apologize to the parent on behalf of my child, who does not know better and is still learning. (Not even 2 yet.)

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Ashley – I’ve never encountered an angry parent, or even one who looked mildly annoyed, because I didn’t require Kieran to apologize. Now, mind you, most of my friends identify as AP, so perhaps we all share a similar mindset (or at least they understand those parents who don’t do forced apologies).
      Honestly, I think most parents appreciate any effort, as long as you are acknowledging it.
      I’ll be interested to see if anyone else has any experiences!

      • Ashley   ashleympoland

        Thanks! For the most part, the parents I hang with (rarely) tend to have similar parenting views. I do have one friend with whom we’re very dissimilar, though we don’t clash over it, which is nice.

        Mostly, I’m just very uncomfortable about conflict, lol, and especially among other parents.

    • Laura

      Ashley – I’ve never come across a parent who got angry, but we did have an incident at school where she got in trouble for not telling the other kid she was sorry she pushed him down. She is 2 and doesn’t have the mental capacity for empathy yet (plus, I don’t want insincere apologies). Since it’s classroom policy, it can’t really (and I don’t expect it to) change and punishment is a few moments on a ‘reflection chair’. Although this isn’t what I would do at home, it’s not enough to pull her out. I did let them know that I would not support them in this instance, and why, but they also don’t expect talks at home with toddlers to be terribly effective.

      In situations with other parents/kids, I do intervene if things get or start looking like they might get physical, and that seems to be enough. I say things like, “Whoa! We don’t hit. Let’s go play with this over here!”

      I think, in part, people don’t even notice we don’t apologize because it has become so meaningless. They see the actions and that conveys the message that we don’t tolerate aggression, which I think is what other parents are looking for. As a parent, I don’t expect other kids (or their parents) to apologize for things like that, but I DO expect the parent to be involved and working to redirect the child. I only get angry if they stand by and do nothing*.

      *Watching kids to see if they can work things out is ok, but physical violence is not. I’m talking about the parents who aren’t even paying attention to their kids, especially at the toddler age.

  10. MomAgain@40   karentoittoit

    Wow! Thanks for this! I think as long as we address the situation, and not asking the child to apologise, but talking about feelings and behaviour. I also don’t have a problem by apologising on my child’s behalf, but not by making him feel ashamed.

  11. Janine   AltHousewife

    Love this! I think it’s plain wrong to FORCE an apology from anyone and so many parents (Mine growing up! Even though they were pretty AP) resort to it, I think mainly to appease the other parents.

    • Acrophile

      When I do force mine to apologize, it is nearly always to appease other parents. I shouldn’t. The other times, it’s “You hit your friend, and look how sad she is now. You might want to say sorry to her, or ask her how you can help her feel better. I understand that you don’t feel sorry, but it might make your friend feel better, and it’s polite.” I’m trying to figure out the rough spot on the line between sincere and polite. Sometimes we have to be insincere to be kind and “do the right thing.” I think our society has lost something in its effort to be ONLY sincere and throw politeness for its own sake out the window. There’s a balance, and I know I haven’t found it yet, but I’m trying. Our society should try, too, I think.

      • Amy

        Sometimes when my husband and I don’t agree that a certain thing one or the other of us did was “wrong” or “hurtful” we always *do* agree that we don’t really desire to hurt one another or do things to one another that are inconsiderate. In those situations we don’t necessarily apologise for the thing we *did* but instead apologise that the thing we did hurt/offended/minimised/etc the other person. I will try to also teach my child this. “You may have thought it was alright to take Sally’s toy and perhaps you wouldn’t mind if Sally had taken yours but she’s got hurt feelings now and I’m sure you didn’t mean to do that, right? Maybe you could tell Sally you’re sorry you hurt her feelings?” sort of thing.

  12. Sarah

    I like what Amy said above – you can apologise for the hurt or upset someone else feels even if you are not feeling particularly wrong about what caused it. That is a great way to teach empathy, and to acknowledge the hurt feelings of another person.

    The thing is, many of us are raising children who are becoming so self-directed and self-empowered through our well-meaning praise and validation that they are not capable of seeing their own wrong actions or feeling regretful for them. I see the end product in my job at a university – 18 year olds who have the most outrageous sense of entitlement, have never been permitted to fail at anything and never seem to feel shame or regret for their actions.

    As kids get older (my son is 7), I think it is a parent’s job to teach them the social niceties like apologising – yes, sometimes even if they don’t mean it. After all, your child has to live in the world with other humans, and getting along is a survival skill. The social apology is, if nothing else, simple good manners, and more than that, shows that you regret that someone is hurt or upset.

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