Have you ever said to yourself that you deserve an apology or felt upset that you didn’t get one? The words “I’m sorry? Have they ever sounded challenging to pronounce?
Chances are, this is the case, which proves the importance of knowing how to apologize and receive an apology, which is found in many cultures. Moreover, most communities have a similar relationship with apologies and how to express them.
When adults feel cheated, apologies are often beneficial: they can prevent reprisals, lead to forgiveness and even empathy for the troublemaker, and restore the confidence that has been compromised. Better still, sincere apologies have a physiological effect: they lower blood pressure, especially for those who cannot contain their anger.
But how do children relate to excuses? And when do parents think they should make their children apologize?
How Children See Excuses
Research shows that by the age of 4, children understand the emotional implications of an apology.
For example, they understand very well that an apology can make an upset person feel better. Toddlers also find that apologetic troublemakers are more lovable and make better playmates.
Recent studies have investigated the real impact of apologies on children. One group of toddlers aged 4 to 7 receives an apology from a child who did not want to share, while another group is not entitled to it. Those who have received an apology feel better and view the offending child as kinder and full of regret.
In another experiment, the children are subjected to a more stressful event: someone kicks their building tower. Some kids get excuses, some don’t. In this particular case, spontaneous apologies do not reduce children’s annoyance. The apologies still have an impact. Children who have received an apology are more likely to share their cute stickers with the person who reversed their tower than children who were not apologized to.
This finding foreshadows that apologies lead children to forgive, even though the sadness associated with the incident remains. Children feel better when the “guilty” person offers to help them rebuild the tower. In other words, what matters to children is both the expression of remorse and remedial action.
The Role of Apologies in Education
Although apologies make sense to children, views on the role of apologies in education differ. Some oppose making children apologize based on the mistaken notion that children are limited in their understanding of social mechanisms. They already have great empathy.
It is not clear when or why parents encourage their children to apologize; studies are still few in this area. I recently conducted a survey with my colleagues Jee Young Noh and Michael Rizzo from the University of Maryland and Paul Harris from Harvard to better understand.
We interviewed 483 parents of children aged 3 to 10. Most of the participants were mothers, but there were also fathers. Parents were recruited through Internet education forums and came from all over the United States. On these forums, we found all possible opinions on education.
To take into account the possibility that parents might want to show themselves in their best light, we measured the “social desirability bias” specific to each parent. The results presented here take this bias into account and are corrected according to its influence.
We asked parents to imagine their children breaking rules that are important to them. Then we looked to see if they would make them apologize, depending on each scenario. We also asked parents to rate how important it is for their children to learn to apologize in different social situations. Finally, we asked parents to share their global vision of education.
Most parents (96%) think it is essential for their children to learn to apologize after an incident in which they upset someone by doing it on purpose. In addition, 88% of parents consider it necessary that their child learn to apologize after upsetting someone without doing it on purpose.
For less than 5% of parents, apologies are just empty words. But even these reluctant parents remain sensitive to the context in which the incident occurred.
Parents say they are particularly inclined to make their children apologize when they have been guilty of “moral transgressions,” whether intentional or not. These transgressions bring together justice, law, and welfare issues, such as when a child steals something or hurts someone.
Parents consider apologies less critical when transgressing social conventions (such as cheating at play or interrupting a conversation).
Excuses to Reconcile
Interestingly, parents are inclined to make their children apologize, both when they have upset others on purpose and when they have not done so on purpose.
It proves that for many parents, what matters when they ask their children to apologize are the possible consequences of their offspring’s missteps. Based on the data we have collected, parents teach children to apologize to help them deal with complicated social situations, regardless of their initial intentions.
For example, 88% of parents indicate that they would ask the child to apologize if he broke someone else’s toy by mistake (assuming the child does not spontaneously apologize).
Parents especially encourage their children to apologize after an accidental misstep that harms another child (and not an adult). When the child lashes out at one of his peers, parents know that if he apologizes, he can reconcile with his peer rather than allow resentment to set in.
We also asked parents why it is essential to make their children apologize. In the case of moral transgressions, parents see these inducements as tools to teach children to take responsibility. In addition, it helps them understand empathy, notions of right and wrong, how to help others feel better, and how to clear up confusing situations.
However, not all parents see things the same. A small group of parents struck us as relatively permissive: they are affectionate and caring but not particularly inclined to instill discipline in their children or to expect responsible behavior from them.
However, these parents do not despise excuses, but they are much less inclined to encourage their children to present them than the other parents surveyed.
When to Make Children Apologize
Overall, parents in our study believe that apologies are essential for children, and research on the issue shows that children share this view.
But are there more or less effective ways to encourage a child to apologize? In my opinion, parents should consider whether the child is offering a sincere apology and whether he is doing it voluntarily. A recent study shows us why.
In this study, we asked children aged 4 to 9 to rate two types of excuses suggested by an adult. After simple parental incitement, the first was delivered voluntarily to the victim.
We found that 90% of children consider that the one who receives a “voluntary” apology feels better, while only 22% think that a forced apology can help the victim feel better.
When parents consider encouraging their children to apologize, they should remember that it is better not to push a child to apologize if they are not ready to apologize. ‘He doesn’t feel remorse. Most children find that forced apologies are ineffective.
In such situations, restoring calm, increasing the degree of empathy, and encouraging the child to make amends can be more constructive than forcing a little one who does not want to apologize. Although, of course, the child can also voluntarily apologize while trying to right his wrongs (one does not prevent the other).
Apologies are not just words children repeat like parrots; let’s not forget that adults also use rituals that involve very codified verbal exchanges, such as when two people who love each other say, “Yes, I do.”.
Just as these codified exchanges can take on a profound cultural and personal meaning, words of apology play a significant cultural role. Consciously teaching young children to apologize is one way of teaching them to care for others and to be valued in their community.