Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”Ephesians 4:32
Getting kids to take responsibility for their actions and offer a sincere apology is one of our greatest challenges as parents. It’s not enough for a child to say, “I’m sorry,” especially when coerced to do so. More often than not, these apologies sound forced and insincere, leaving the recipient feeling more hurt or angry than before.
In our house, we have instituted a three-step apology sequence which helps the offender acknowledge and take responsibility for their actions, as well as make amends with the person they have offended. We consider it a big win when our kids initiate this sequence without prompting, but it often takes some guided training to get the results we’re looking for. It’s worth the extra effort, though, because these steps will serve them well throughout their lives.
Step 1: Admit you did something wrong. Admittedly, this is the hardest step. Kids are so intent on defending their position or casting blame on the other party that they have difficulty seeing their part in the problem. It usually takes some strategic questioning to help the child get to a place of introspection and self-awareness.
Hear their version. We begin by asking for a honest account of the event, beginning with an “I” statement. We don’t allow the child to begin with “So and so did xyz.” We aren’t looking for who is at fault. We are asking the child give a factual account of what happened that focuses on their own actions.
Get clarification. We have this, we may ask the other party for clarification or to tell their version of the story in the same manner. When we feel that we have a good handle on what happened, we then ask the offending child pointed questions about their behavior. “So, am I correct in understanding that you hit your sister?”
Hold them accountable. If they have just admitted to this in their account, they can’t go back on their confession. If the behavior (in this case, hitting) violates a rule of the house, it doesn’t matter what the surrounding circumstances were. They are responsible for breaking a rule, and we expect them to take responsibility for it.
In this step, the goal is to get the child to recognize that they have done something wrong and to verbalize it. This would sound like, “In my frustration, I hit you (my sister) instead of using my words or getting Mom or Dad.” Just a simple, straightforward admission.
Step 2: Apologize for what you have done. Ideally, at this point, the child is beginning to feel at least a twinge of remorse for their actions. A sincere apology does not sound like, “I’m sorry,” in a snotty or flippant or sullen tone. (One of our children is notorious for rolling her eyes while she apologizes.) In this step, the offender realizes the error of their ways and seeks to communicate this in a direct and thoughtful way.
Three key components of a good apology include: saying the person’s name, looking at them, and being specific. An example would be: “Jenny, I’m sorry that I hit you in the arm and hurt you.” An important add-on here is, “Will you forgive me?” or “I hope you can forgive me.”
Step 3: Attempt to make amends. In this final step, the offender either offers a relevant solution or asks how they can make things right. In our example, he might say, “Can I get you an ice pack?” or “Is there anything I can do to make your arm feel better?”
Usually, by this point, hearts have softened and restoration of the relationship is underway. Most disagreements are not entirely one-sided, so we will encourage the offended party to go through this sequence, as well, taking ownership for their part and making amends as needed.
Dealing with Awkwardness
It is not uncommon that the awkwardness of this process brings some levity to the situation. Even as children are trying to hold onto their stubbornness, anger or hurt, you may see the hint of a smile. Capitalize on this.
With our girls, once they both go through the three steps, I’ll tell them to say “I love you, and I’m glad you’re my sister.” At least one of them will do so grudgingly (i.e. the one who does the eye roll), and then I’ll make them hug each other, and inevitably, laughter will erupt as they try to out-squeeze each other.
At this point, the situation is diffused, amends have been made, and life continues, a little sweeter than before.
Not Just for Kids
This process is not just for siblings. We expect this kind of apology from our kids when they have broken a rule, disobeyed us, lied to us, damaged or broken something, etc. As hard as it is for our kids to do this, it is even harder for us to do it as adults. When we wrong our children, we can employ these steps to make things right with them again.
Intentionally working through this apology sequence takes humility and vulnerability; these are traits we want our children to develop while they are young, so that it isn’t so great a struggle when they are older. It is important for us to model this for our children, so that they can see it in action and learn from us. One place we can start is with regard to current events in our nation.
There is great value in employing these steps as we work towards racial reconciliation. Acknowledging where we have done or thought wrong, apologizing for it, and asking how we can make things right are great first steps to bridging the divide between the races. It takes some honest and sometimes difficult heart work, but it is so worth it for the healing and restoration it can bring. Are you brave enough to begin?
How do you get your kids to work through an apology? Share what works for you in the comments below.