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.
“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
Thanks for this post, Susan. I love the idea of modeling empathy. Just after I read this — literally only a few hours later — I was involved in a similar situation on the playground. My two year old accidentally hurt a smaller boy. I went to comfort the little one, but his mom had him in a huge, protective bear hug. I turned to my child to talk to him about what had happened, but he wasn’t ready or able to suggest a solution. In the end, I wanted to be sure the other mom knew we (or at least I) was concerned for her child, so I asked my son to apologize, which he did. I know the words weren’t especially meaningful to my son, but I think they were important for the hurt child’s mom. What could I do differently next time?
Thanks Victoria, for giving us an opportunity to discuss more on this topic.
Hey everyone, these posts are meant to get a dialogue going. Share your situations and let’s talk them over!
One thing to try in a situation like Victoria’s would be to go together to the hurt child. “I know you didn’t even realize it but that little guy over there got smacked when you spun your rope around. Let’s go see if he’s ok.”
Maybe your son would go willing, maybe he would run in the other direction. So, with or without him, you could say, “I’m so sorry that rope hurt you. Are you ok? Is there anything we can do to help you feel better?” Hopefully, your honest expression of concern will do a lot more to comfort them than a meaningless “Sorry” from your child.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for saying sorry whenever someone is hurt by accident or on purpose. It is pushing a child to say it when he doesn’t understand or mean it that I think is unhelpful in developing empathy. When we adults honestly say we are sorry and take action to help a hurt person we are modeling empathy.
Reality check…. Is it a horrible thing to make your child apologize? Sometimes it is the easiest thing to do and you just can’t avoid it. No big deal. We can’t have perfect learning opportunities every minute. It’s how we operate 80% of the time that counts most.
“We can’t have perfect learning opportunities every minute. It’s how we operate 80% of the time that counts most.”
Susan, I love your 80% rule. Many times when I’m frustrated and tired and I feel like I’m completely screwing up my job as a parent, I take a deep breath and try to remember that, for the most part, I’m doing okay. They really will be all right! 🙂
What if your almost 5 year old refuses to ever participate in these kinds of conversations? I talk like this to him, but he will not brainstorm on ideas on how to make things better. He changes the subject. He won’t try to figure out how to avoid future problems. He always repeatedly hits his sister and steals her food, etc intentionally to make her cry (she’s nearly 3) but will not respond to this kind of discussion. I’m feeling helpless and don’t know what to do. I’m also feeling like things can’t continue on this way. We are all at his “mercy” since I don’t feel like shame and discipline are appropriate.
Thanks for responding to the post.
Just like anything, creating space for a more peaceful sibling relationship and empathy building is a process for the whole family.
I’m sure you are already anticipating those times when truly hurtful hitting is likely to happen, physically protecting your daughter if she is afraid or unsafe and saying something like “It is never ok to
hurt your sister. I’m not going to let you hurt her. Tell me what’s going on.” If you are dealing with daily serious hurting it is another conversation…
But it sounds to me like you are talking about the usual teasing, rough and tumble sibling
stuff and that your son isn’t buying in to the whole idea of figuring out ways to help his hurt sister.
Here are some quick thoughts:
As a first step- talk to him in a calm moment away from his sister, “Your sister is getting hit and her food taken away and she is feeling miserable. Can you tell me what is going on? What do you need?” My guess is that he probably will not be able to answer, but giving him some solo time to try to understand the need behind his behavior might lead to a breakdown of “You never hold me anymore!” or “She is always taking my stuff! She’s so annoying!” or “Joey hits me at school…”
If he isn’t able to articulate what’s going on, step two is to do some detective work and notice when those scenarios are happening. When you are busy on your phone? Just after school, before dinner or when his sister wants to play with his legos?
The important idea here is to understand the reason, the need, behind the behavior. It doesn’t excuse the behavior or make it ok in any way but does give you a chance of finding a solution.
Once you have some clues, together you may find that a healthful snack, time alone with toys that he doesn’t have to share, mom and son nature time, or pounding away at some playdough might help a lot.
Seeing the “need behind the behavior” and doing the problem solving to help your child from there is part of the whole empathy building process. It helps you further develop your own empathy as a parent and a person. And you will be modeling the process that keeps the whole situation compassionate. Good luck and let us know how it goes!