Monday, October 22, 2012

Say You’re Sorry

All parents want their children to be socially well adjusted – to be kind, generous, empathetic and conscientious of others.  Most toddlers however, didn't get the memo about social etiquette.  They see the world as revolving around them and they seek to meet their own needs first and foremost.  This is entirely appropriate developmentally, but can make for some frustrating interactions with parents and peers. Thus, figuring out how to send the message about socially acceptable behavior can be challenging.

Parents inevitably have deal with situations involving toy snatching, pushing, hitting, etc. and their response is usually to attempt to extract an apology from a child who likely feels no remorse. This strategy may eventually result in a change of behavior, but it does not address the issues behind the behavior, nor will it help the child learn to consider the feelings of others.

I do not force Riker to apologize because I don't believe that making him recite a simple phrase will cause him to feel remorse for an action that was less than friendly, nor will it help him see the other child's point of view.  Asking a toddler to apologize may make a parent feel that they've taken appropriate disciplinary action, but children don't need to learn to say "I'm sorry" as much as they need to learn to feel sorry.

Apologies focus only on the feelings of the person who committed the hurtful action.  "I'm sorry."  "I'm embarrassed."  Empathy however, recognizes the hurt that has been caused to the other person. Instead of forcing an apology, it's my belief that parents should use such incidents to cultivate empathy and to help naturally egocentric children learn to take the perspective of another person.

This approach takes a bit longer but I believe, will in the long run, yield better results.  If Riker snatches a toy from a child, the first thing I do is get down on the floor and point out to him that the other child was using that toy and it was not okay to take it out of her hands.  I model the appropriate response and apologize to the child myself, but I do not pressure him to do the same.  If the other child is crying, I ask Riker to look at her face and I tell him that she feels very sad to have lost her toy.  I then wait a minute to gauge his emotional response because toddlers take time to process these things.  Then I might apologize again and ask if she would like her toy back.

Getting the toy back to the other child requires some finesse as I do not like to pull a toy out of my child's hands, even if he took it away from another child with force.  That's simply telling a child to do as I say and not as I do.  The best way I've found to get the toy back into the hands of the other child is to say in the calmest and most unemotional tone possible, "Aubrey was using this toy.  It needs to go back to her.  Would you like to give it back or should mama give it back?"  Nine times out of ten, Riker will willingly hand it back.  If he doesn't, then I will calmly hand the toy back to the child, having given him notice of his options.

When everyone is calm again, there are opportunities for further learning.  We might ask again how the other child felt when the incident occurred to reinforce the perspective of the other person. Older children could also be asked if they remember a time someone broke one of their toys, hurt their feelings, etc. and how it made them feel.  Finally, it's always important to ask what might be said to help the other person feel better again. In many cases a child will come up with the idea to offer an apology on their own accord which is always far better than a parent insisting on it in the first place.  Whenever Riker offers an apology to me or to anyone else, I like to point out how it made me feel or how it appears to have made the other person feel.

The most important point here is that we must model the behavior we wish to see in our children.  Forcing them to apologize will not make them feel sorry for their actions. Even worse, it suggests to them that it's okay to say things that we don't mean.  Discussing the feelings of others and witnessing their parent (over and over and over) apologize for mistakes and convey the message with genuine feeling, is the best way to help a child take the perspective of others and to internalize the ability to make a genuine apology. 

This strategy doesn't have the immediate result of an apology offered on the spot, but when we consistently help our children to see how their actions affect the people around them, we are instilling the seeds of empathy, an important long term skill that will benefit them in all future relationships. In my mind we can no more command a child to feel empathy than we can command someone to feel love or generosity. Empathy is best taught by example and by helping a child to accurately read emotions.  Then those other characteristics we are hoping to see, kindness and compassion, can shine through.

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