This is the second in a series of Monday blog posts describing The Language of Sunflower. Last week Jaime offered advice for talking to children about Feelings and suggested ways to encourage children to express their emotions. Today Susan writes about how we handle apologies at Sunflower.

hands-on empathy

“Say you’re sorry!” …or not
Cheryl barrels through the playground and jumps on a swing. She’s been waiting 20 long minutes for that swing and now she has it! In her wake a toddler has fallen and is crying with a mouthful of sand…

Your child hurts another… All parents want their children to show care and concern for others. What experiences build empathy? Does empathy grow from saying “I’m sorry?” Where should the motivation to feel sorrow, remorse or concern for possible injury and helpful action come from?

You and the child’s mother run to the sobbing, sandy child. The little one is fine but the mother looks expectantly at you to “do” something to your child.

Haven’t we all been in a similar situation? Embarrassed by something our child did, either by accident or on purpose, and hotly demanded or even with great kindness suggested that he/she say “I’m sorry.”

“Get off that swing this instant young lady! Don’t you see that you knocked over that poor little baby! Get over there and tell him you’re sorry.” Or maybe something gentler, “Cheryl quick, go say you’re sorry to that poor little baby!”

Cheryl dutifully says a meaningless “I’m sorry.”

Does the toddler feel cared for? Has Cheryl become a more empathetic child? Is saying “I’m sorry” good enough?

If what we want is for our children to show empathy from within because they are genuinely caring people, then let’s look at this situation as an opportunity for learning. Instead of relying on the quick fix of saying those two words, hoping they’ll take the pressure and our embarrassment away in the short term, we can turn this situation into a hands-on experience in empathy.

Here are some suggestions for a better way to handle this situation.

Focus on the hurt child first. Run first to the hurt child. The attention is on caring for him.

Model empathy with your actions and words. “Oh no, you got knocked over! Are you okay? That must have been a big surprise. Is your body hurt?” You comfort him, dust him off and check to make sure he’s okay. You are vividly modeling how we take care of anyone who might be hurt either physically or emotionally. Your child might be viewing this from her perch on the swing or maybe not. You are modeling care and empathy for everyone on the playground. Children learn most by how we respond, our language and our actions. We are modeling for them every moment.

Go to your child and point out how the other child was affected. Once the little one has been cared for, go to your child and point out that the toddler got knocked over when she was running. Help her to see the impact she had on him. Show your concern and ask “I helped his Mommy dust him off and he seems okay, but what can you do to help the little guy feel better?”

Enlist your child’s ideas to help the hurt child. She could decide to run for water, a towel or offer a toy or a bite of sandwich. Depending on her age and experience she might need suggestions, but most children can come up with lots of helpful ideas. “I think you’re right. He looks like he could use some water and a towel to get all the sand out of his mouth.”

Help her to carry out the plan. “Here’s a cup. The water fountain is over there.” “You’re right. There is some ice in your lunch box. Run and get it.” You are not telling her what to do (extrinsic motivation); she comes up with the ideas herself and takes action. Because the ideas came from within her (intrinsic motivation) she gains a hands-on experience of true empathy. It is this kind of experiential learning that slowly builds the empathy that will become part of her character for life.

Later talk about how the situation can be avoided next time. “Remember how you helped that little guy at the park this morning after you knocked him down? How can you make sure that doesn’t happen again?”

Children need hands-on real life experiences practicing the actions and language that show care and concern to build true empathy.

© Susan Caruso and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2011