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Children Saying Sorry - It's a Life Skill

By Sarah Liebetrau - 21st November 2011

According to Ali Macgraw’s character in the the 80s cult movie Love Story, ”love means never having to say you’re sorry”. Perhaps that’s because, according to Elton John,  “sorry seems to be the hardest word”.  I agree with the latter but not the former. While it can be hard to say, in our family, love means being willing to admit when you’re wrong.

I apologise to our children regularly and freely, when the need arises. I believe it’s important for them to see that I make mistakes, and that I can acknowledge this and attempt to make it up to them. I think that by saying sorry I am more able to move on from an issue, and it sends children the message that they're not always the ones in the wrong.

Recently our children were not being very nice to one another. I insisted that they apologise to each other. My son asked me why he had to do it. I explained that it was a way of ‘making up’ when you had upset somebody. I reminded him of times I had apologised to him, and asked him how that had made him feel. He agreed that it made him feel better.

When it comes to disagreements between my husband and I, the circumstances vary. There are times when the discussion is too adult in nature for them to be privy to, and it’s not appropriate for them to be witness to either the initial issue or the way it’s worked out. But other times, when one of us has been grumpy or snappy towards the other (particularly if the children were present at the time), we make it a point to say sorry to each other in front of them too. That way they have witnessed conflict and its resolution.  
There is also the issue of a genuine apology versus a throwaway one that is said simply in order to wriggle out of culpability. This is a trickier path to navigate. I want our kids to be able to apologise, of course, but I don’t want them to think that you can basically get away with anything as long as you say sorry afterwards. I have been trying to teach them that as well as saying sorry, it’s important to think about what you have done so that next time you try to act differently. I do think that sometimes it’s too easy to just say “sorry” and then continue with the same unacceptable behaviour. But as with everything in life, it’s about balance, and the importance of a heartfelt apology cannot be overstated.

When the offence is more serious, it may be necessary to follow up the apology with some action to make amends, eg, if a toy has been broken, you say sorry and replace it.
Then of course there are times when we may be taking an action that is not going to be popular, but there is no need to apologise, such as when standing up for ourselves or being assertive about an issue. When I give our kids limits and they complain that I am being ‘mean’, I'm quite unapologetic. And I want them to be able to take a stand for themselves on issues they believe in,  in an unapologetic way, and not always be deferring to what others think for fear of upsetting them.

For me it has taken a while to find a balance I am comfortable with, and to consider the complex issues surrounding the use (and abuse) of the word ‘sorry’.  And the best thing I can do is to model the behaviour I want to see in my kids, and hope that some of it rubs off.

How important is it to you that your children say sorry? Do you actively apologise to them?

image freedigitalphotos.net David C Dominici

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