by Todd Sarner, MA MFT. Director of Transformative Parenting
One of the most troubling things I hear when I am out and about these days is how many parents are forcing their children to say they are sorry for their behavior. Sometimes it’s because the child bumped into someone accidentally at the store. Other times it’s because the child did something the parent sees as rude. And sometimes it’s for more serious offenses like harming another child in some way. In all of these cases, big and small, I often want to take the parent aside and say, “what is more important to you…that your child says they are sorry or that they feel sorry? From my perspective, as a parent and as a professional, I am much more concerned with whether they feel sorry.
The Root of Good Intentions
One of the oldest debates in history about children (and humans in general) is are children born inherently good or inherently bad? If you take the position, as people have over long periods of time in the past and some do today, that children are bad, then they need to have goodness instilled in them from the outside. We have to shape them into model citizens through any number of methods, including leverage at times and force at others.
If, however, you take the position as I do that children are inherently good, this changes entirely how you interact with them. You see this goodness as something that is in there already, you just might need to wait a bit for it to blossom and might need to water it from time to time. As one of my main mentors Dr. Gordon Neufeld has said, you see yourself as a child gardener, not a child sculptor.
What we know now about the human brain is that there is overwhelming evidence for the gardener model. Attachment science tells us that the most important thing to human beings is being able to feel deeply and securely connected to the ones we love and to be loved and accepted for who we are, not what we do. People learn and take the lead from people they are attached to. Our brains are wired to be empathetic and to also imitate the behaviors that we see in those we love.
Empathy and the Young Child
For the young child, however, it takes a little time for the capacity to do certain things. Before a shift in brain capacity that occurs usually between five and seven years of age, a child has a limited ability to reflect, to be empathetic, and to regulate their actions. The capacity for these things is a byproduct of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is not full “online” in the very young child. It’s not that we might not see these characteristics at times, but more often the young child is a creature of instinct, impulse, and imitation.
What this means to us as parents is that we are meant to understand that our children are limited in what they can do in these years and that we are meant to compensate for this and to set a good example as much as possible, modeling the behavior that we hope to see eventually in our children. By compensate, I mean that in the short term we do things like apologize for our children when social norms require that someone say they’re sorry. And as Dr. Neufeld says, we also do more to control the situation that our young child is in rather than control the child. In doing this, we help buy some time until their development in this area kicks in.
As I mentioned before, there are situations in which our concern for doing things that are socially expected cause us to do things like ask our child to say that they are sorry. This is understandable, especially in situations where your child does something to another child (or an adult) that causes them to be hurt. However, as parents we must resist the pull to make our child apologize if their apology is not naturally surfacing, because to do so might do more harm than good. One, it gets in the way of their own “sorry” being able to find it’s way to their lips. Secondly, it could have the effect of making the child feel ashamed of not feeling sorry in the moment. This is totally natural (the not feeling sorry in the moment) because of the brain development issue I mentioned above and because as human beings one of the first things we do when we’ve done something wrong is to go on the defensive. Our brain can essentially “shut down” in a way because it’s anticipating being in trouble. So if we have an urgent expectation that our child is “sorry” and they’re not feeling it, this can make them feel bad about themselves and teach them that they can get out of these situations by simply mouthing the words.
It’s easy to see how in some ways these social expectations about manners can get out of control. I am really impressed when I go to places in the US where the culture is much more polite than I have experienced growing up in California. However, I’ve also noticed a phenomenon in these places where some people go through the motions of being polite (“Thank you, you have a nice day, Sir”) but there is a real edge about how they say it. You sense underlying anger or resentment but they are saying the right thing. I’m afraid we’re creating a culture of this insincere or disconnected politeness when we force our children to say things they aren’t feeling.
The Sand Incident
When I am discussing this topic with clients or in classes, I often bring up an incident that happened with my son Benjamin when he was about 4 years old. It was a rainy day but the rain had let up so we went to the lagoon near our house. After playing and running around the lagoon together for a while we went to the playground. There were two different areas in this playground and we were alone on our side. On the other side, there was a mother with her 2-year-old looking daughter.
I needed a break, so I sat down on a bench about 10 feet from where my son was playing in the sand. One of the first things he did was to cheerfully throw a big scoop of sand into the air with a little sand shovel. I gently said, “hey Benny, don’t throw sand in the air like that, ok?” to which he replied, “OK!”. A few minutes later, the mom on the other side of the playground got a phone call on her mobile phone and she started walking over to our side of the park.
Ben continued playing and I was watching him from the bench. What neither of us really noticed is that the mom was walking to just behind the slide that he was playing next to (because she wasn’t talking, she was just listening). Next thing you know, Ben forgot my instructions from a few minutes before and he threw another big scoop of sand in the air. This time, the sand went in the face of the mom.
She was livid. She immediately turned to Benjamin and with anger on her face and in her voice said, “you threw sand on me!”. I could see how frightened Ben was and I hurried over to help him. I knew my number one job was to make sure he was OK and I scooped him up and gave him words of reassurance (“It’s OK Benny, it’s alright. I’m here.”). The social aspects of this situation were not unimportant to me, but they paled in comparison to making sure my son felt safe. However, I did know that this woman was upset and I turned to her to express my sincere apologies. I said, “I am really sorry. Ben usually knows not to throw sand and I am sorry that happened”. I tended to the social requirement and expectation and I was truly sorry.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough for the mom. She turned again to Benjamin and in a very angry tone and said, “Are YOU sorry? Do you SAY sorry?!”. Here she went to far. My big Papa Bear protective energy came out and I gave her a look that in no uncertain terms said, “Back off!”. I knew this was frightening my child and I knew that he already felt terrible for what happened. I said to her, “I told you that I am sorry and I will talk to my son about it later. Have a nice day.” She walked away in a huff, probably thinking to herself what a bad father I was.
I took my son over to the bench and sat him on my lap. He was very upset and asked for his mommy. I don’t take this personally. I know that my son and I have a great relationship, but I also know when he is really upset or hurt he wants his mommy. I told him, “I’ll take you home to mommy in a minute, but I want to make sure you’re OK.” He shed some tears and I held him and let him know that everything would be alright.
After a few minutes he looked at me with tears in his eyes and he said, “I really didn’t mean to do that. I forgot.” I said, “I know, Benny, I know”. Then, a minute or two later he tried to say something else through his tears, “I really didn’t mean to. I really am…I really am…” And I knew what he was trying to say. “You really are sorry, huh?” I wasn’t trying to make him say it, I just knew it was there. He replied, “yes. I am sorry.” That, I knew, was gold. That was my son truly feeling sorry from his heart, not just saying it to make that mom or myself happy. He felt it. He meant it. I took him home to see mommy. Being four years old, I knew that I couldn’t always expect the sorry to be there so readily, but I was happy to see it in this case. I cannot remember a time that he has thrown sand in the air since.
Our goal as parents should be, as much as possible, to create the conditions and the environment for our children where they feel safe enough to feel their feelings and not to be shamed for things they don’t know yet how to do. In addition, we do everything we can to model the proper behavior and manners that we hope to see in our children.
Over time, the best scenario is that will notice and recognize when our child does show signs of having mixed feelings about things or that they are sorry about something. When we see it, we make room for it and we affirm it. Like the gardener, we water the seeds of good intentions, of politeness, and over time we see it grow. Many parents I know personally and professionally have never once told their child to say sorry or thank you or bless you or excuse me, and yet their children say these things all the time. It is so much more meaningful this way.
Todd Sarner, MA, MFT is a licensed psychotherapist and Director of Transformative Parenting, a Parent Consulting & Education practice in Mill Valley, California. He does individualized consultations with parents in person and on the phone as well as conducting live and online parenting classes and courses. Todd was asked by leading developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld (“Hold On to Your Kids”) to be one of the first interns in his professional training program and he is a former Faculty Member of the Neufeld Institute. You can reach Todd at (415) 289-6515 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is: www.transformativeparenting.com