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  • Dr. Roseanne Lesack

Teaching our Children to Say Sorry and Mean It

It is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. Your child hits, lies, grabs, pushes, or does any one of a number of mean things to another child. The immediate parental reaction is often to force an apology. Generally, this consists of either a timidly mumbled “sorry” or an angrily screamed, “SORRY,” neither of which are deeply sincere. Some parents may try to squeak out a promise that the offense will never occur again (which is unlikely) or have their child ask the victim what can be done to help remediate the situation.

For those celebrating Yom Kippur beginning Friday night, I am always inspired by this amazing opportunity to teach children how to truly and sincerely apologize. At its core, Yom Kippur is about repentance. Whether you choose to celebrate by praying all day and fasting, something entirely different, or even if you are not Jewish this is the perfect excuse to think about those actions you wish you could forget and hash them out all over again.

Yom Kippur is often skipped over when it comes to children. There is nothing inherently exciting about it: no apples and honey, no candles and presents, no matzah. But there is a great educational and developmental opportunity here that gets overlooked. Sitting with your children to think about actions that they might want to apologize for is an excellent exercise in learning how to both be reflective and, ideally, take a positive step forward on the heels of a negative moment or behavior. This holds true for children as young as 3 or 4 years old up through adolescence. Consider the following guidelines for teaching your children the important lessons of asking for forgiveness and forgiving others.

Help Your Children Think of Specific Situations from the Past Year

Find the time to ask your children about an event in the past year when they hurt someone else, either physically or emotionally. This can be around the dinner table or while saying goodnight. If your children have difficulty thinking about a specific situation, offer suggestions related to a sibling, parent, or friend. You can also provide a personal example to start the conversation.

Think of Ways to React to the Same Situation if It Happens Again

Part of the repentance process is to think about how to react if the same exact situation came up again. Talk out all of the options of how your children could possibly react if placed in the same situation. Think of as many options as possible, even if they are not “good” ones. By using a solutions-focused approach, you can help your children learn to be flexible in finding numerous resolutions to their problems. Then discuss which suggestion would be the best approach for the specific situation.

Create an Apology Plan

Coming up with a concrete way to apologize consists of a few components, depending on the age of your children. The apology plan can include: outlining the less-than desirable behavior, why it was not the best choice, and what would be a better reaction to the situation in the future. This plan can manifest itself in the form of a letter detailing the apology, a picture, or a verbal discussion either in-person or by phone/video. Role play this out with your children and help them find the best words to adequately convey their feelings.

Deliver the Apology

Help your children find the right time and situation to fulfill the apology. This may be difficult for many children, as admitting shortcomings is not the most comfortable task for any of us. Therefore, offer whatever support is appropriate. For younger children, this could include going with your child and helping to explain some of the conversation that occurred when discussing the apology. For tweens, you can help set up a time to go over to the person’s house.

Accepting the Apology of Others

An important lesson in the repentance process is discussing with your children how to accept the apology of someone else. When a sincere apology is offered, it is up to the aggrieved party to either accept or reject the apology. Discuss with your children how they would feel if their apology was denied. If your children expect others to forgive them, they also need to practice forgiving others. As parents, there are multiple incidents where we could have acted more patiently with our children. Go through the steps above and offer an apology to your child. Encourage them to take your apology seriously and help them to be gracious in accepting your apology.

Learning to apologize is not always easy, but such a crucial lesson for all of us, including our children.

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