Say you’re sorry!!! Have you ever said this to your toddler or young preschool-age child? Was your voice raised a bit when you said it? Did you have a stern look on your face? Did it happen during a play date or maybe a trip to the park? Did you say this immediately after your child hit, pushed or grabbed a toy from a playmate?
Chances are that you were embarrassed because your savage child was behaving like an uncivilized beast. And you want to make sure the other parents know that at least you have good manners. So, shouldn’t you tell him to say he’s sorry? After all, you want him to learn to be kind and caring toward others. And you want him to be polite. What’s a parent to do?
Let’s take a look at the practice of forcing an apology from your young child when he has behaved in a less-than-socially-acceptable way and see how effective it really is in helping your child learn to live peacefully in the world.
First, consider where your child is developmentally. Toddlers and young preschoolers are egocentric. Their world revolves around them. They are just beginning to notice cause and effect in their play; such as, when you push a particular button on an electronic toy, it makes a particular sound. At this stage of development, understanding the connection between his own action and the effect it can have on another person’s feelings is waaay beyond his ability to understand.
Let’s imagine a scenario in the park when your toddler pushes a playmate down in the sand. The dialogue might go something like this in the two-year-old’s mind.
“I want that toy. That other thing (child) is between me and the toy. If I push that other thing (child) out of my way, I can get the toy.”.
So he does. Problem solved – at least from his point of view.
“And oh, by the way, now that other thing (child) is making noise. Wonder what that’s all about? Oh, well – I’ve got my toy and life is good.”
“But, uh-oh. Here comes Mommy. Mommy isn’t smiling. Mommy is telling me to say something. “
Say you’re sorry!”, Mommy says, in a firm voice.
“Huh? OK. “
“I sorry (whatever that means).”
Situation over. Your child apologized. Now you can go back to your chat with the other moms while the kids play. But maybe, somewhere in the back of your mind, there’s a nagging question. “What did my child learn about living peacefully with others through that encounter?”
Not much, other than that if he says some words he doesn’t understand, Mommy will calm down. Continuing to require automatic apologies throughout the preschool and early school-age years can actually get in the way of your child developing and expressing genuine feelings of regret for making bad choices that negatively impact other people. How many children do you know who have learned by the age of eight or nine that, no matter what they’ve done wrong, all that is required for a “Get Out of Jail Free card” is to mumble an automatic, “Sorry.” And some carry that idea into adulthood. Just say the words and all is forgiven. Hmmm.
If we want to truly lead our children to live as peacemakers, we need to do more than have them parrot empty words that are not genuinely heartfelt. We need, instead, to teach them about real empathy. So, how do we do that? It takes time and patience. Are you ready? Here are seven tips that can help you teach your child to be a peacemaker.
1. When your young child is aggressive toward another child, calmly walk over to your child, get down on her level, make good eye contact and say, “Kacen is crying. He is rubbing his arm. It hurt him when you pushed him down.”
2. Offer to do what you can to help the offended child. Invite your child to come along. Say, “Let’s go see how we can help Kacen feel better.” Don’t force your child to participate. If your child doesn’t want to join you, go by yourself to offer compassionate care. Your child will be watching and learning a lot by observing your actions.
3. Model empathy. Say, “Kacen, I’m so sorry that you were pushed down. That must have hurt. Do you need a bandaid for your arm?” Continue modeling empathy throughout every day. Offer genuine apologies whenever appropriate, whether it is stepping on the cat’s tail or breaking your husband’s favorite ice cream bowl – say you’re sorry, really mean it and do whatever you can to make amends. The role model you provide for your child is so much more effective than any lecture or punishment could ever be.
4. When the dust has settled and you have a quiet moment together, talk with your child about the incident – not in a punitive way but to help her begin to understand what happened and how to handle similar situations in the future. Depending upon how verbal and mature your child is, you might ask her to come up with some ideas of better ways to solve a problem. Ask, “What else could you do when someone has a toy you want to play with?” Listen respectfully to your child’s ideas and offer constructive feedback.
5. When she’s old enough to understand that other people have feelings and ideas that may be different from hers, ask her to put herself into another child’s place. How would she feel if someone pushed her down? Read children’s books about feelings and getting along with others. The children’s librarian can offer lots of great suggestions for books that can help.
6. Validate your child’s feelings. Sometimes we adults try too hard to protect children from being upset. We have a tendency to want to distract them, cajole them or make light of their feelings. But having a wide range of feelings is simply a part of being human. It is important to let your child know that it is ok to feel angry, sad, scared or disappointed sometimes. Instead of denying her feelings, label and accept them. This can help her learn to manage her own feelings and to be empathetic toward others.
7. If you haven’t already started Bible study at home, there’s no time like the present. Read Bible stories that are written at your child’s level and follow up with conversations about the fact that we all do wrong things. It’s called sin. Pray together as a family and ask God to forgive you and help you to be peacemakers.
I pray that these suggestions are helpful to you as you go about the very important work of parenting. If I can be of help in any way, please feel free to contact me. Let me know about the parenting topics that you would like to see addressed here. Send me a message, give me a call or stop by for a chat. I look forward to hearing from you.
Dianne Nielsen, Children’s Ministries Director