Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word (or, why I don't force apologies)

It's a situation many parents are familiar with. You're at a playgroup, a party, a friend's house, whatever, and one child does something that hurts or upsets another child. Sometimes this is intentional - a push or a snatched toy. Other times it's an accident - two children colliding as they run around, no malice, just one of those things.

As one parent comforts the injured party, the other parent brings their child over and tells them, "Say sorry."

They don't.

The parent repeats the request. "Say sorry."

They look away, fidget, do anything but speak.

And again. "Say sorry."

And so it goes on, often until long after the original hurt has been forgotten. I've had instances where I've held Eleanor back from going off and playing simply because another parent is trying to elicit an apology from their child.

This is not something I do with Eleanor.

Why? Lots of reasons, but mainly because I think sorry means nothing if it's forced. Saying sorry should mean that you realise what you've done is wrong, you feel bad about it, you regret it. If you're just saying sorry to get out of a situation or to get someone off your back, what does that achieve?

We've all heard false apologies. Sorry is often used passive-aggressively - "well I'm sorry if you feel that way." I admit that I do this too. I've often 'apologised' for something in a tone that really says, "OK, just stop going on about it!" Nobody likes that kind of sorry. When people in the public eye issue apologies, we're often quick to pull them apart and find a telltale weakness in their statement. Because we know that a genuine sorry matters. Do we really want to teach children that only the word matters, not the sentiment?

Also, lines of right and wrong are so blurred with children. When two children are running around and bump into each other, there's nobody to blame other than nature for giving small children boundless energy and a rubbish sense of direction. And we don't see everything. What we see as our child snatching a toy could actually be them reclaiming something that was snatched from them when we had our backs turned. A few days ago Eleanor was playing with a tractor when a boy took it from her. Talking to the boy's mother, it turned out she thought Eleanor had snatched it from him in the first place. (I know she hadn't as I'd just used it as a trade-off to get her to give a snatched toy back to another boy!) Is it right to make a child say sorry when we don't know all the facts?

And then there's the fact that it can actually prevent both children from moving on. As adults, we often look for someone to blame when something goes wrong; from what I've seen, children mostly don't care. Yes, there will be times when a meltdown ensues, but most of the time they just get up and keep playing. But when you're having to hold your child still while waiting for a reluctant apology, they can't move on. I do wonder what this teaches them - could it make them less resilient? There are plenty of times in life when you have to pick yourself up from knocks. As an adult it can be hard, but kids are experts at it. If we teach them that they should drop everything and wait for an apology, is that going to help them in future?

So what do I do instead? Do I let Eleanor run riot, snatching and pushing without consequence?

Of course not. I talk to her about how her actions affect others. I point out if she's made someone sad. She still struggles with sharing so I talk about taking turns and help her to find something else to play with if someone else got to a coveted toy first. I try my best to model. If I shout at her I say sorry afterwards. I say sorry on her behalf if I feel it's needed in a situation. Sometimes if I think she's receptive to the idea I'll say, "do you want to say sorry to that child?" Generally she'll say sorry to me but clam up when we get to the child. That's fine by me - I just relay the message, at least she said a genuine sorry at some point. I'm hopeful that this way I'll raise a thoughtful child who is concerned for other people's feelings and says sorry because she really means it.

I'll admit this sometimes feels awkward, but to be honest it's rare that another parent seems affronted that I haven't forced an apology. More importantly, the child never seems affronted. I find it more awkward when I'm making Eleanor wait for an apology. I still do it, because I respect other parents' rights to choose how to raise their child, but it does make for an uncomfortable few minutes.

I'm also aware that, now Eleanor has started preschool and in a blink of an eye will be off to school, she may be told to apologise when I'm not around. I don't like this thought, but it's just another hazard of choosing a less common way of raising your child, and I'm used to that! Hopefully, the groundwork I'm putting in now will help her to understand it's not a get-out clause.

What do you think? Do you tell your child to say sorry, or do you leave them to say it spontaneously? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

2 comments:

  1. It's a tough one, and I think you set out the issues very well in this post. I remember on one occasion saying to my small son "what are you going to say?" and he said "please". When I said, no, not please, he said "Thank you? Hello? Sorry?" I realised that the lesson was being a bit lost on that occasion!

    I think it's one of those ones that is drip-drip-drip over years. Yes, there'll be some times when your child is frog-marched into saying sorry at nursery, and yes, there'll be some times when she'll have got away without saying sorry when you feel she should have done. But over time, the big picture will come together like a jigsaw (one hopes!)

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I do think it must be hard at times for little ones to remember what they're supposed to be saying! I have noticed since starting preschool Eleanor has started apologising more - but it's weird stuff, like she falls over then apologises to the floor!! I just keep telling her that it was an accident and she doesn't need to say sorry to the floor, and hopefully she'll start to understand when sorry is the appropriate thing to say.

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