Why you don’t need to tell kids to apologise

On playgrounds, in play groups and in school you can often observe how kids who have hurt others are requested to apologise. The kids normally comply quickly because they have learned that it doesn’t make sense not to since they won’t be allowed to continue their game until they did say sorry. They learn early on: if an adult asks for an apology they won't stop - maybe even punish you - until you comply. In this regard there seems to be no space for negotiate.

apologising girls

In these situations you can often observe how the victim stands shyly, because it understands that he has to wait until the apology is finished. Doing so it seldom looks comfortable and it would obviously rather continue playing. The perpetrator -depending on how aware of his wrongdoing he is - is equally uncomfortable and sometimes it doesn't den seem to be aware of his guilt. Especially young children often seem like they didn't even feel bad. The perpetrator will do what is asked of it regardless: it bares his teeth and mumbles "sorry" while shaking the other's kids hard or hugging it briefly. After this ceremony both go away just to dash again ten minutes later.

Why adults ask for apologies so impassioned 

To apologise is a basic part of "politeness" to a lot of adults. Polite is (per definition) someone who does not disturb others with inadequate behaviour. Since babies are born as drooling, burping , farting and very loud and egocentric beings a lot of parents feel like Hoy have to teach them manners as quickly as possible since such behaviour won't be tolerated in older children. Also they generally have a deep desire their children may grow into happy humans with a fulfilled life. Naturally people who are nice and polite and stick to the rules of society will have an easier path through life and will be able to make and maintain social contacts more easily than the ones who are impolite, grumpy and disinterested.

The requisition to apologise is as deeply ingrained in our social prerequisites as saying "please"and "thank you", greet friendly and let others finish their sentences. Whoever does not follow this seemingly easy convention is quickly marked as unfriendly. In this regard, the parental need of not turning their kids into those barging, grousing and impolite people they meet everyday very understandable. When kids fail to stick to social norms it is credited to their parents after all. Especially in regards to politeness the surrounding people also feel appointed to help teach - "What's the magic word?" makes parents turn pale and then blush. No one likes to be seen as a failure when it comes to growing your children.

So if parents ask their children to apologise they do so with a motive and because they think they have to teach them "manners". After being asked 15 or 20 times the child will very much understand what's expected of him. The apology the child then will deliver will suffice the social guidelines but lack Zu important emotional component: it is often solely extrinsically motivated. The child will, to a certain age, Only apologise because he knows it's expected. Extrinsically motivated apologies are halfheartedly and seem unkind, the child does not feel honest remorse and just reels off an expected program.

To ask children to apologise leads to the depletion of the true meaning - honest display of remorse with the hope the Other one may forgive - to an automatic routine which is nothing more than a meaningless phrase. Because if the child was really feeling sorry he would have apologised on his own. To ask him for an apology takes away the meaning - to express honest remorse.

Also one should not underestimate the prejudging character of a pressed apology. Often we judge a situation without knowing the big picture - just seeing part of the interaction. Our need to make up for the misbehaviour of the child means that the child has little to no chance to explain himself. Maybe Kathi tore Ben’s hair before he pushed her? Not that Ben’s behaviour would be legitimised by Kathi tearing his hair - of course it is wrong to push someone. Though if we immediately ask for an apology Ben will feel judged and has no chance to explain his perspective on the situation - because in his opinion he also would have deserved an apology, just like Kathi. Besides, we sometimes take the opportunity for the kids to maybe solve their own problems by stepping in.

Why small children can´t yet show sincere remorse

To apologise sincere a child has to have specific cognitive and emotional abilities. To really feel empathy it is essential to reliably determine the emotional state of another person. This means a child has to be able to detect body and facial expressions, decode them and assign them an emotion. Signs like tears for sadness and knitted eyebrows for anger help with the decoding. Children aren’t born with that knowledge - they learn it by observation and explanation.

apologising girls

Another prerequisite for a sincere apology is the ability to change perspective and to see a situation from someone else’s point of view. That means he has to be cognitively able to realise that different people have different levels of knowledge. Things that might be obvious to us aren’t for our children! They see themselves as the center of everything after birth. In their imagination all other people think and feel exactly as they do - they don’t even consider that could be different. Therefore they think up to about age three that, just because they feel good and don’t hurt after an encounter, it has to be the same for the other one. They don’t even consider the possibility the other one could hurt or not be happy.

The confused disbelief a one-year-old shows when asked for an apology is therefore not acted. They really do not understand why they should apologise. Not until the age of two do children get a basic understanding that other people have their own, independent thoughts, wishes and feelings. And not until the age of three to five years are they able to put themselves into someone else’s perspective more often.

To realise he did something wrong he also has to be able to put himself in someone else’s place and understand their feelings. In order to do this he has to have felt these feelings before himself. A baby only enjoys biting his father or pulling moms hair because they have never felt it themselves and therefore don’t know it hurts. He only sees a very impulsive and therefore interesting reaction to it. Children learn just in time that ‘Ouch! That hurts!’ means they hurt the other person. It learn it by recognising their parents instinctively say ‘Ouch! Did you hurt yourself?’ when they hurt themselves. Whoever has never had a toy taken from them or being excluded from a group or pushed off the slide doesn’t even know how it feels. Children learn very laborious which action evokes which reaction.

Children don’t learn how to put themselves in another’s place until they are about four years old. At this point it might get obvious why there’s no point in asking for an apology from a child younger than that. As long as he cannot take the other ones perspective he cannot understand oko  he bothered the other one and therefore a forced apology always remains a phrase of civility without real remorse and therefore without any value for the victim. Because children are not able to feel sincere remorse until they can understand that what they did (maybe even on accident) evoked negative feelings in the other one.

And even if they are already able to do all this they still have a hard time. The ones with older children certainly have experienced their child coming back a long while after the situation feeling remorseful - but in that case truly sincere - and asking for forgiveness. Since children are very impulsive and don’t have much self-control, they need time to process a situation. It is a very complex process after all! Children have to detect the emotions of the other one, classify them, understand that they are responsible for them, maybe discover what exactly evoked the reaction, find an alternative route for the next conflict, tame their own feelings, ask themselves if an apology would be appropriate and if yes how to apologise...

If we, as adults, force an apology right away we hinder this process though. If we anticipate the result of this process the child might end up realising he doesn’t need to think about it as much or detect others feelings. He just learns conflict situations are solved by following pattern X by just mechanically apologising - the incident will be forgotten following the slogan ‘forget it!’. This can hurt their empathy since it can evoke the impression it would be ok to hurt or irritate others as long as one reels off the learned ritual afterwards and everything will be okay.

This does definitely not mean you should just indifferently watch your child hurting someone else! It is very much important to stop him when he physically harms others or if they obviously dislike what’s happening. And it is as important to talk about what happened and verbalise that his behaviour s not acceptable. By verbalising other people’s feelings children learn to detect and sort them. They need someone to tell them: ‘Look, this child is angry! He is screaming stomps his foot, because he feels bothered by your behaviour.’ This is way more meaningful than asking for an apology. If you explain your child: ‘Look, Lena is crying! She seems very upset and sad about you taking her toy. Now she can’t play with it and that makes her very sad. I bet she really wants it back. Lena, you want your doll back, don’t you? I am sorry you’re feeling bad’ to then allow some time for him to process the said he will usually conclude to at least return the toy. This way your own child does not ‘lose face’ and won’t feel humiliated by a demand for an apology - maybe
even combined with snatching the doll from him. We can reasonably assume our child did not act from malicious intent but he lacks the development of empathy.

"Learn" apologising by living the value

Children have the natural urge to imitate the people surrounding them. Since they survived until now it seems evolutionary reasonable to act alike. This process is supported by the mirror neurones - small nerve cells that are also called the resonant system of the brain. Those neurones develop the same pattern of activities while watching them as if you were doing them yourself. This way we can empathise and actually imagine other people’s emotions. But they are also centrally involved when children imitate their caregivers behaviour. The mirror neurones allow even young babies to reciprocate a smile or imitate a yawn.

Mom and daughter cuddling

If we as parents demonstrate to our children how and when an apology is adequate our children will automatically copy our behaviour because their mirror neurones activate when watching us. They then safe the behaviour of their caregivers as societal norm and therefore correct action sequence. This means children unknowingly copy thief parents behaviour and their mirror neurones ‘make’ them behave as social later on. They collect unconsciously knowledge through observation.
In conclusion it is important we regularly apologise (sincerely) to our children - there are plenty of opportunities in everyday life. We can also apologise representative for our children in situations of conflict - obviously without compromising our child (‘Oh, i am sorry! I see you are very sad!’)
In regard to apologies we can handle it just like Karl Valentin said:

‘We don’t need to rear our children, they copy us anyway!’ 

© Danielle Graf