Altercations between young children are common. If parents are around to witness the squabble, they usually ask the aggressor to say he’s sorry. This is a reasonable thing to do because adults are supposed to teach children how to behave in social circumstances. However, most parents have been in the situation where one child does not want to say he’s sorry to the other. What should you do then, especially if your child was the one who wouldn’t say he was sorry?
Not only are you likely to be embarrassed if this happens, but you may also feel a strong sense to force your child to apologize. Encouraging kids to say they’re sorry is logical. Forcing them is not. In some cases, a parent will threaten to take away TV, dessert or other privileges if the child refuses to say he’s sorry.
Although I appreciate the motivation to encourage your child to apologize, if it’s not sincere, it’s not clear that anything will be gained by forcing the issue. My recommendation, in this situation, is to model the appropriate behavior for your child instead of turning it into a showdown. Make eye contact with the victim and say something like this: “I’m so sorry, Henry. We don’t allow hitting in our house, and I don’t know why Ryan did that to you.” You might also consider ignoring your child for a moment and hugging the child who was hurt.
Children learn by experiencing the consequences of their actions. In the above example, you ignored your son and gave positive attention to the child who was wronged. This is only half of the intervention. For the next five or ten minutes, you would watch your son like a hawk so you could give him positive attention for appropriate behavior. Psychologists call this process, “catching them being good.”
I found your blog just today and am enjoying your posts, but I feel compelled to comment on the column pertaining to saying, “I’m sorry,” Hugging the hurt child is understandable, but when the offender is very young, the action can be misunderstood, as it was with my young sons. I saw my younger son hit his big brother and I said, “Oh, Chrissy, I’m so sorry.” as I hugged him. The little one interpreted that to mean that he should hit and then hug, because that’s what he did next. So glad I caught the problem early, so that I could teach my young son properly. I don’t know where the little one got the idea to hit, since my older son, five years older, was always gentle with him Cartoons perhaps?
You made a good point. One of the challenges in raising children is to be alert for things that happen when you don’t expect it. I haven’t run into the situation you described, but your response to the episode makes sense.