The Problem With “Say You’re Sorry”

If there’s one parenting practice that I wish we could all get together and agree to stop doing, it’s this:  Telling kids to apologize.  Okay, maybe it would really be spanking, but since I think that’s on its way out anyway, I’m going to go with “say you’re sorry.”  It’s a totally well-intentioned practice with awful implications.  Let’s look at it.

The first thing we need to consider when a child does something we think they should apologize for is whether or not they are actually sorry.  Have we asked them if they feel bad about what they did or said?  If yes, and their answer was yes, then this is the (one and only) situation in which I’d say, sure, go ahead an suggest they say sorry.  (More about this case in a minute!)

But let’s say the kid is not really sorry.  This presents the first problem with telling them to apologize.  If we tell a child who does not feel sorry to say “I’m sorry,” we are asking them to make an untrue statement about their feelings.  This teaches them they either a) do not know how they feel, or b) should lie about how they feel.  And I don’t know which is worse.  Emotional literacy is extremely important in life, and knowing how we feel is what it’s built on.  The ability to identify our feelings is like the alphabet of emotional literacy.  And the ability to communicate our feelings is the foundation for social literacy.  It’s how we have authentic relationships with others.  (Not to mention, telling kids to lie about feelings can easily be generalized to “It’s okay to lie about anything we want.”)


Still think we should tell our kids to say sorry when they’re not?  If so, the implication is that there is a benefit to apologies that is independent of their sincerity.  An apology must be helpful in resolving a conflict whether or not it is sincere.  Let’s consider that possibility.

My husband is very much in the “say you’re sorry” camp on this issue.  (We disagree.  He’s a genius, and that’s why I married him, but even geniuses can be wrong.)  One argument in particular that we had about this followed an incident where our daughter told him to “shut up.”  He was very unhappy with her but also very unhappy with me for not making her apologize to him.  He said that it was teaching that her she could “get away with” talking like that and that I should make her “take responsibility” for her actions.  Even when I asked why he would want an insincere apology, he said that she needed to learn “some respect.”

All those reasons make a lot of sense.  But here’s the problem:  If the apology is not sincere, it doesn’t help with any of those things.  When we teach kids that there is a magic phrase they can say whenever they mess up that counts as “taking responsibility,” and “making things right,” isn’t that letting them “get away with” bad behavior?  What could possibly ask less of them?  And is that really what we want them to think “responsibility” means?  Saying whatever you have to say to get someone not to be mad at you, whether you mean it or not?  And isn’t lying to someone the height of disrespect?

fingers crossed

Here’s the thing:  If apologies are helpful in resolving social conflicts, it’s because they’re a way for one person to show the other person that they know they did something wrong and to make room for forgiveness.  But if we’re not going to insist that apologies are sincere, then the words “I’m sorry” are rendered meaningless.  And in that case, there’s no point in saying them, so case closed.

To be clear, apologies are not the problem here.  It’s insincere apologies that are the problem.  A person who is emotionally and socially healthy and competent absolutely does apologize when they realize their words or actions have negatively affected someone else.  But they apologize from the heart and as an expression of – rather than a replacement for – genuine regret.

Want to raise kids who apologize (on their own and genuinely) when they should?  Great!  Here are some tips on how to do that:

  1. Say you’re sorry.  You say it.  When you mess up, apologize.  (Even to your children.)
  2. Welcome and honor feelings in your home.  Encourage your kids to notice how they’re feeling, to label their feelings and to pay attention to them.  Make feelings an everyday topic of casual conversation.
  3. Point out social cause and effect.  Everything we do has consequences for others.  That gives us lots of opportunities to illustrate cause and effect for our children.  (“Look how that man smiled when you waved at him.  I bet that made him happy.”  “How do you think Grandma felt when you said you didn’t like the hat she gave you?”  “Hmm, if I leave my coffee cup here, Dad will have to clean it up for me.  I think I’ll go wash it myself.”  Etc.)
  4. Teach responsibility.  Make sure your child knows that when they do wrong, the expectation is that they will make it right.  And you won’t accept half-assed attempts (like insincere apologies).  For example, when my kids messed up the plants in a neighbor’s front yard, I made them go knock on her door and tell her what they did.  I didn’t tell them to apologize, but they had to go ask her what they could do to make it up to her.  (Incidentally, they did – on their own – choose to apologize.)  Another example, when one of my kids hurts another kid, they need to go see if the other kid is okay before they go on playing.  (Again, this almost always naturally leads to apologies.)
  5. Encourage kids who do feel bad about their actions to apologize!  As I said above, if you have determined that the child does indeed feel bad about something they did, it’s perfectly appropriate to suggest they apologize.  This familiarizes them with the (completely valid and beneficial) social convention of apologies in a way that does not undermine its sentiment or abuse its power.  (“Hey, it looks like you feel bad about knocking down Billy’s tower.  I bet you’d both feel better if you told him that you’re sorry.”)

It’s good if our kids grow up to be people who apologize when they mess up.  But we can, and should, expect more from them.  We can expect them to be people who actually own the consequences of their actions, who feel genuine empathy for those they’ve wronged and who own up to their mistakes with no excuses or easy outs.  We can expect them to be people who apologize and mean it.




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