This blog is my fourth installment in my "Parenting with Dr. Dave" series. If you haven't read the earlier installments, they are available on the Tiger Talk Blog by browsing the parenting topics. Today I want to introduce two more parenting tools, namely, apology and restitution. My fifth and final contribution will be about reframing, coming this spring.
In those earlier blogs, I wrote about the role of natural and logical consequences as a good method for teaching children responsibility for their actions while simultaneously holding them in high regard. The trick to doing this successfully often lies in finding creative yet still logical ways of connecting the behavior to the consequence. A child rides her bike dangerously; then, she can't ride her bike for a specified period of time. A child misbehaves when a friend comes to visit, so the friend can't return for a while. A boy makes a mess playing with art supplies and doesn't clean them up, so access to the supplies is restricted for a bit. The above examples involve fairly obvious consequences for apparent violations of rules. But what about when a child behaves rudely or inappropriately to others, perhaps siblings or even parents? What is the consequence of hurting someone's feelings? I believe a logical consequence that often applies in that situation is acknowledging the act and its impact on others--that's what we call an apology.
Full and Sincere Apology
An apology helps manage our negative experiences, particularly those of personal regret or shame. We can feel better about ourselves for having apologized for our mistakes. We also know when we apologize that we are doing something that might assist the other to feel better. Yet, parents have often said to me, "But I don't need an apology. He's just a little kid." That's often true--the apology is not needed to soothe the adult's ego. But, the apology is key to ensuring that the child understands where she erred; and that the narrative she carries is healthy and constructive. In that way, the apology ensures that the child has a narrative in her head that is likely to help modify and guide future responses in similar situations.
For example, if a boy is being pestered by his sister and responds by hitting her, he can feel justified in his action because she made him angry. If his parents then punish him for hitting, he may feel that he is a double victim. He is a victim of his sister's pestering and his parent's lack of understanding. A full and sincere apology that emphasizes acknowledging the feeling and the poor behavioral response ensures the child "gets it," knowing where his behavior became unjustified. The apology needs to be sincere, or it isn't genuinely acknowledging the pain caused to the other. Sarcastic apologies are not acceptable. And it needs to be "full," which means it identifies the feelings that may have motivated the poor behavior while also acknowledging that the behavior was inappropriate and avoidable. Thus, full and sincere apologies sound like this. "I'm sorry I hit you. I was feeling upset with you, but I should know that hitting is never justified." Or, "Mom, I was frustrated about so many things, but I shouldn't have yelled at you. I'll try to talk calmly next time."
I suggest the "repeat after me" approach with younger children who are not sophisticated enough to produce such apologies. Just give them the words they need to say. One may ask what good is an apology if it has to be coaxed in that manner? Training children to be sensitive to others often takes that form. When a toddler asks for a cookie, and her mother says, "What do you say?" The child says "please," and the mother hands over the cookie and then adds, "Now what do you say," hoping for a "thank you." It may be a rote routine as the girl just wants the cookie, but she will begin to feel the sincerity in her words through the repetition of such manners. It is an example of the behavior affecting the feeling rather than just the feelings affecting behavior. As children practice and become more sophisticated in their apologies, they are more likely to adjust their behavior accordingly. They are also more likely to develop a better sensitivity to the feelings of others.
Of course, with repetitive or more serious offenses, a simple apology doesn't seem to be enough. In that situation, restitution, or making amends, is in order. "You caused me to be late for work by not being ready for school on time. So, when we get home, I'll want to hear an apology, and I'll want you to make it up to me by picking up my clothes and taking them to the washing machine." Note that the parent doesn't ask the child to pick up the child's dirty clothes but the parent's. The restitution must benefit the parent personally to emphasize the compensatory nature of the act, even if, for a small child, the action is more symbolic than actually helpful.
Just like an apology, an act of restitution not only teaches the child the error of their choice and acknowledges its impact, it also helps the child develop a stronger empathy for others. We don't just apologize or make amends because we feel empathy; we feel empathy because we have a history of apologizing and making amends when we make poor choices. In other words, facing the consequences and being held responsible also makes us more sensitive to the feelings of others.
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