Parents often ask me what is the best thing that they can teach their children. They are often surprised when I reply that I think being able to say sorry properly is incredibly important for children’s development.
However it’s not exactly easy to develop this skill.
Who likes being wrong? We might think back to our last argument and remember clearly how painful it was to admit we had done something wrong or hurtful. This is the first important aspect of being able to say sorry properly – being able to own up to the fact that we made a mistake or did something wrong. If your child can do that, this means that they can be honest about their own mistakes. They don’t run away from it, or try to blame someone else. Admitting their error doesn’t erode their self-esteem.
Nevertheless, it’s still not easy. Admitting you’ve done something wrong can bring up many difficult feelings: shame, fear, anger, regret. Saying sorry properly means that you can move through these feelings intact. For our children, this means that they can tolerate these difficult feelings and not try to avoid them.
But it also points to another crucial life skill: they can see and appreciate how something has hurt or upset someone else, they can see it from the other persons point of view. This ability to have a dual perspective on things is incredibly important, it will instil empathy and thoughtfulness into the way in which they interact with other people in their world. It will help them to understand how their actions impact others around them, the world at large. It will help them to develop a sense of their place in the family, community and school. In the world.
It can also be hard to think when you’re all worked up. We sometimes need to calm down a little before we can think straight, and get to the apology bit. What happens in the middle is that we soothe ourselves, so if your children can calm down quite well, this means that they have also learned the incredibly important skill of self-regulation, that is, calming their minds and bodies down to be able to think straight, feel a little better, and then say sorry.
This all sounds great, doesn’t it? So how do we teach children how to do this? Well, they won’t learn by us telling them that they need to be able to say sorry. They learn from experiencing this skill themselves. From us. We as parents need to learn how to do all the above with and for our children if we want them to be able to do it too.
So just take a moment to ask yourself: have you ever lost your temper, with your child or partner? Do you find it really hard to calm down in the midst of an argument so that you can think straight and think about what your part in it might have been? Have you ever told your child you were sorry in an honest and meaningful way? This is without doubt the most effective way to teach them how to say sorry and mean it.
It can include simple things like saying to our children that we are trying to see things from their perspective… “I know you felt upset when I gave out to you, it must have felt a bit scary that I shouted like that”. Or simply that we made a mistake but that we can own up to it, not deny it or try to deflect it…. “I made a mistake there, I was angry and I tried to blame you for (spilling the milk/breaking the dish/losing the scissors)….”.
One thing I find as I practice saying sorry is that it is incredibly liberating to be able to own up to something. You can almost feel some level of pride in it. Hopefully our children will learn this too. And the best thing of all, it is never, ever, too late to start saying sorry properly to your children.