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Teaching Kids How to Say "I'm Sorry"

By Ron Huxley

Hannah hit Josh with a block. I did the appropriate thing. I asked Hannah to tell Josh that she was sorry for hitting him. Hannah refused. I guess she wasn't sorry.

A few minutes later, Josh kicked over Hannah's blocks. For some crazy reason I thought that Josh might behave in a civil and respectful manner and say he was sorry. He wasn't. I guess at two years of age, social behavior is a difficult concept to master.

Teaching children social skills is a constant process. Even when young children struggle with the concepts or ignore them altogether, it is important that parents instruct and model them to their children. In the case of Hannah and Josh, I was attempting to teach the principle of restitution. When you hurt someone or destroy their stacked blocks, you should apologize and show genuine concern for their feelings. At their egocentric age of two, empathy for others is a low priority. For parents, it should be a high priority. So how do you cope with these two extremes?

A dad explained it to me this way: "When you go to pour a concrete foundation (he was a construction worker), the first thing you do is set the forms." These forms will hold the concrete until it hardens into the formation you desire. When working with young children on difficult social skills, it is necessary to set the form for appropriate social behavior in order to achieve the type of character you desire. Concrete, as a substance, is unstable but highly malleable. Children, in their tender years, are impressionable and easily shaped.

When setting up the social form of restitution, parents must walk the child through the steps of social graces, asking the child to repeat back the parent's words. Sometimes a parent will ask a child to hug or caress the child they have hurt, to illustrate the principle physically. Afterwards, the parent will encourage the children to play together "nicely," offering suggestions on how to carry this out.

When Hannah and Josh refused to act out my script for restitution, I didn't chastise them or force them to go through it again, I merely acting it out for them. The victimized child was still in need of comfort and I gave it to him and her. I put my hand on their shoulder and told them I am sorry that this situation happened, keeping it impersonal. Shame is never a beneficent tool for parents. I them instructed them to play together in a way that minimized the risk of further aggression. I set the forms that would make the foundation of this little person's character. When children do comply with a parent's request for restitution, be sure to reward it. Don't give your tot money. A pat on the back and "thank you" or "that's being nice" is sufficient. This actively models the lesson for the day.

Restitution for older children is quite different. School age children and teens learn restitution through natural and logical consequences. If Roger breaks a neighbors window with his softball, he should be required to pay for the damages. If he doesn't have the money to do so, he will have to pay mom and dad back, from his future allowances and/or jobs around the house, to make up for it. If Sarah hits another child, she must say she is sorry but also provide some form of emotional compensation. Perhaps doing something nice for the person or performing some menial chore. The best way to pay for a crime against another is to provide community service. This is practiced in the juvenile courts and works equally well in the parents judicial chambers. Finding an elderly home or day care center to volunteer the child's time after school or on the weekends is one way to provide restitution.

When children are older, parents must teach more complex skills than saying, "I'm sorry" and giving each other a hug. Negotiation and mutual problem solving skills are also needed. Parents can instruct and model how to resolve conflicts and find solutions to disagreements with others. This means that parents must be differentiated themselves, placing the mantle of responsibility squarely on our shoulders. This can be a heavy weight to bear. Particularly if parents had inadequate models growing up.

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Not having our own training is a good reason for not teaching social skills to our own children but it is a bad excuse. There are plenty of good books, tapes, and parenting classes that parents can use to learn what they did not receive naturally. Stephen Covey's books on "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families" or an "Assertiveness Training" class can give parents what they did not get in order to pass it on to their children, young or old. Many parents assume that older children should know better. The fact that a child is older is no guarantee that he or she has mastered the skill of restitution. This is just a copout for parents who will not take responsibility for their own issues - a poor model in it's own right. The news is filled with examples of adults who have committed heinous crimes against others proving that age is not always a factor.

Learning social skills is a lifelong process. Mastery comes only with trial and error. Parents can teach their children the difficult concept of restitution, starting at an early age, regardless of whether the child takes to it or not. Setting the forms for future social behavior is an important task for parents with young children. Instructing and modeling it for older children is also important. Hopefully with the right amount of early training and constant example, children of all ages will learn how to say they are sorry. And mean it.

© Ron Huxley
Ron Huxley is the author of the book "Love & Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting". Visit his website at parentingtoolbox and get free expert advice on anger management, mental health, and parenting issues. Build the family of your dreams! Get 400+ power parenting tools to rebuild, repair, or remodel your family relationships now.


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