Behaviour & Emotions

'Sorry Bobby' – Should we force kids to apologise?

Parenting Place forced apologies

I’m one of six kids in my family. Growing up, there was always someone to play with, always an adventure happening and many happy memories were made. We concocted mud milkshakes and tried to convince our neighbours to taste them, we played loads of imaginary games complete with dress-ups, and we turned our pitch-dark hallway into an obstacle course and took turns running the gauntlet – trying to reach the far end and identify which sibling had been following us.

But as with most typical families, we didn’t always get along nicely. As the eldest, I received many reprimands from my parents, reminding me that I was bigger than my siblings, that I didn’t know my own strength and that I should have known better. And, like in most typical families, my siblings and I were required to say "Sorry" when we’d hurt or upset each other.

Sorry Bobby

I clearly remember the feeling of having to go through the motions of saying sorry, but not feeling at all sorry in my heart. And somehow a strange ritual developed amongst my siblings. When forced to apologise to each other, we would say “Sorry,” but then, in a lower voice or out of earshot of our parents, we would add “Bobby”. Now I have no clue who Bobby was, or why we started using their name, but I still remember the satisfaction I felt when I said it after my “Sorry” – because we all understood that adding “Bobby” nullified the apology we’d just given.

However, when my parents made my siblings apologise to me, it didn’t feel so great. It felt slightly good that I’d won (although this did not happen very often, as anyone who is the eldest child will know), but it mostly felt pretty average because I knew that whoever was doing the apologising wasn’t really sorry. And none of these moments helped our relationships. We didn’t learn to get on any better and we didn’t learn to care about the impact of our actions on each other. In fact, we didn’t actually care much at all. Thanks a lot, Bobby.

Say it like you mean it

This is the problem with forced apologies – they don’t address the real issue of disrespect to another person, they don’t develop empathy and compassion, and they don’t lead to genuine remorse. They also don’t lead to a change in behaviour in the future. Knowing how to repair relationships, and being prepared to make such repairs, is important in developing meaningful friendships – something we all want for our children. The good news is that we can teach our children how to apologise and actually mean it. So how do we encourage an honest, authentic apology?

Life lessons

First, we need to consider our timing. In the heat of the moment, if we force our child to apologise, it’s unlikely to be honest or sincere. When a child is made to apologise when they’re angry, it just makes them madder at their sibling. Later, when they feel calm again, they might be moved to apologise. But not when they’re mad. So, our first response should be to tend to a child who is hurt and ensure they’re okay. Then we wait until the child who ‘needs to apologise’ is willing to talk about what happened.

We want our child to feel empowered to repair the relationship, not resentful that we’re making them take the blame.

When a child feels safe, we can have a constructive conversation about what happened. Children, and teenagers for that matter, will be more likely to accept our influence when they feel that we have heard and understood their perspective. Since there are always two sides to the story, we can ask open-ended questions and help our child narrate what happened. We can listen carefully, empathise, validate and show understanding of their point of view. Then we can ask them to consider how it may have felt from the other person’s perspective. We don’t need to be the judge and decide who is right and who is wrong. We just need to help our child recognise that they hurt someone or did something wrong, and that they have a choice about what they want to do next.

Once a child can see that their actions hurt someone else, we can ask, “What is the right thing to do now?” or “What do you need to do to make it better?” We want our child to feel empowered to repair the relationship, not resentful that we’re making them take the blame. We can encourage our child to make it right or make it better, without any force, shame or anger. For example: “Your sister loves you and looks up to you. When you laughed at her, it looked like it really hurt her feelings. I wonder what you could do to make things better with her?”

A hug, some kind words or some other gesture are all forms of apology and repair, too.

Sometimes our kids will think of something they can do – a hug, some kind words or some other gesture are all forms of apology and repair, too. Whatever form the repair takes, celebrate it and accept it. Sometimes our kids will have difficulty thinking of a suitable attempt at repair – and we can give some suggestions. For example, help rebuild the tower that the fight was about or build a tower for the sibling to knock down. Draw a picture or make a card listing three things you love about your sibling. Help the sibling with a chore. You can give your child ideas, but then say “I know you’ll figure out the perfect thing to do….I can’t wait to see what it is!”

Over time, if we consistently use this approach, we can teach our children to take another person’s perspective, become aware of the impact of their words and actions on others, own their mistakes and take responsibility to make things right.

Remember, though, that this is not about giving a ‘consequence’ to pay the child back for their actions. They have to choose what they might do to make things better, and they are also free to choose not to. And sometimes, our children will not want to make things better. If this is the case, it’s likely that this child is still very angry. We can try to help them with this anger (probably by more listening, empathising and showing our love and concern), and in time they might be able to want to make things right.

Over time, if we consistently use this approach, we can teach our children to take another person’s perspective, become aware of the impact of their words and actions on others, own their mistakes and take responsibility to make things right. This helps them develop and maintain meaningful relationships with their family and friends, in a way that forced apologies never can.

Katherine Tarr

Katherine Tarr

Katherine is a Child and Family Psychologist with experience working in both the early intervention and education settings. She is part of our Programme Development team where she is responsible for researching and developing training programmes that will equip facilitators to deliver our courses to a high standard. Prior to training as a psychologist, Katherine was a high school teacher and an outdoor instructor. She has four primary school aged children and in their spare time the family enjoys having adventures in the outdoors.


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