Attended an interesting workshop last evening entitled 'Renegade Rules: Do I have to say sorry'... we are all so familiar with the go to phrases we hear in working with young children 'Say sorry like you mean it." "that wasn't nice, give that back and say sorry." "Be a good boy and tell him you're sorry" "She wont be your friend if you do not say your sorry' You don't look sorry to me.'
These surly all sound familiar to anyone working with children or having once been a child! And discussing 'sorry' tends to be such a hot topic for many educators. We all want children to have good manners, show compassion and empathy for others, and to WANT to apologize on their own from a heartfelt and genuine place. Yet when we TELL them to say they're sorry, what are we really communicating?
The evening started with the question of 'do educators require children to say sorry' and if so why and if not why?
For myself I have moved away from forced apologies because it comes 'just a word' and you will hear children wielding it like a get out trouble free card where they think they can do whatever their want as long as they say 'sorry' as they do it. My desire is to change the root of the behavior through planting the seeds to help in developing empathy and to actually make 'amends' for their inappropriate behavior.
During this portion Charity shared an interesting refresher that the ability to truly cognitively understand empathy children's brains do not open to that function until between 7-9 and it continues to develop in that frontal lobe of the brain until age 25. So while young children are naturally empathetic to the sounds of others tears or anger and what not they do not truly 'master' it until much later in life. In the early years they mimic and gather the seeds of what is remodeled.
We than moved on to discussing why 'sorry' has become the bandaid conflict resolution word. Touching on the social norms and cultural practices being passed down from one generation to another. How 'sorry' is an easy word to introduce to young children and how 'sorry' is considered good manners and social etiquette and as mentioned early we want to instill good manners in children.
When we require apologies of children, what are we really trying to do?
At the root of requiring apologies is the desire to help children connect cause and effect or actions and consequences of their behavior and to develop empathy and impulse control to control their actions and behavior so that there are no negative consequences for them or others.
The messages children hear/think…
- I need you to apologize so I can feel better about what just happened..
- This is how we fix problems (one size fits all approach)
- I need you to do what I say ...
You need me to tell you how to feel and behave...
- I'm not in control...(bigger and stronger wins)
- Integrity is secondary to apologies what I do doesn't have to be aligned with how I feel or think... just do it anyway
We discussed other messages that children might hear/think
We discussed that the words “I'm sorry" are more often about our need, rather than the child's. Young children do not really grasp what 'sorry' really means and being egocentric they are rarely truly 'sorry' anyway - this is something that needs to be taught and mastered.
We discussed what can we do to grow the genuine, integrity based, heartfelt ability to apologize and came up with the following:
1. Role model, always
- Be genuine with your own apologies.
- Voice compassion for your child, others, and their situation.
How does this look in our programs?
Showing empathy and compassion to children, owning our own mistakes and making appropriate amends when we make are wrong or impulsive ourselves, taking the time to explain social norms and expectations in consistent manner with children and in ways that are meaningful and help them make those connections not when they are 'in heat of moments' but at times when their brains are able to actually hear and retain new information.
2. Name and affirm feelings of all parties involved.
How does this look in our programs?
We discussed how it this step is important because we need to remember that 'incidents' with children do not always only involve the person being hurt and the one hurting but also all the bystanders left witnessing the outburst or problem. We need to name and affirm emotions for ALL involved and role model ways to help move through those emotions with reassurances to help everyone return back to a place of peace when ready - and being READY is key - we cannot force people to accept others apologies. We talked about how it is ok to let children choose NOT to play with a child who has been consistently biting or hitting or harming them as this is a natural consequence of that type of behaviour and we should not be inadvertently role modeling to children that they must remain in relationships with those who harm them it is ok to take a break until trust can be rebuilt through better choices on the other persons part!
3. Give choices or ideas
- What can you do to help him feel better?"
"When you are ready to let her know you feel sorry, she'll appreciate it."
"Can you use your words or would you like to show her you feel sorry?"
- Words, smiles, pats, sharing a toy, playing next to these are all authentic ways kids can show they are sorry.
How does this look in programs?
We discussed how this means really 'slowing down' in those moments of turmoil and going through all the steps of help children identify what happened, how that made everyone feel, brainstorming and coaching on how to make it right, supporting children to engage in the agreed upon amends process and than following up again when everyone is calm with a check in on how they are feeling.
Words to Try to role model taking responsibility for our actions:
You need to come back please. Billy is hurt.
Maybe you didn't mean to, but she got hurt. We need to check and see if she is ok.
When you were running fast, you knocked over Elliot.
Are you ok?
Look Sarah is crying, It hurts.
Run and get a tissue (icepack, teddy bear, bandiad) or if reluctant 'lets go get' and go with them.
Thank you that might make her feel better.
Words to encourage child-to-child guarentees
Saying 'sorry' isn't enough. You need to tell Jesse you wont push him anymore.
Are you going to push her again? (some children will say yes. Redirect that NO they need to stop that you will not let them push again)
Eva, if you want to play with Paul, you have to follow this rule: no pushing!
4. Notice what your child chooses or does on their own to express their apology and their
feelings and name it.
feelings and name it.
How does this look in our programs?
We discussed again the importance of really observing our children so we can catch those times they are doing WELL and authentically reinforce those moments verses letting only the misbehavior catch our attention.
We discussed words to avoid:
- Tell him you're sorry.
- Come back and apologize!
- Say 'sorry'.
- It was an accident. (this should be avoided because regardless of intent an amends needs to be made for our actions if they have a negative impact on others and the other has expressed that as so. We do not get to tell children that their feelings are invalid because the other person did not intend to harm them. In addition the 'it was an accident' becomes the new get out of trouble card for many children and just replaces the meaningless 'sorry' approach.)
- She didn't mean that. (again this is irrelevant to the apology process same as above)
- Are you really sorry? (do not set children up for failure with this - they do not truly understand so will likely say NO - remember we are just planting seeds for them to gather in early years.)
- Are you sure you're sorry?
- Tell her "it's ok" (minimizes feelings. If someone hurt you you do not have to tell them 'its ok' when they apologize - its NOT)
- You need to accept her apology. (again we do not always need to accept an apology - sometimes the trust is broken and we are just not ready to move on. Let the injured party have the time needed to process an apology to see if they feel it was truly sincere. When they are ready they will accept it and if they are never ready that is ok too - we need to empower children that it is ok not to remain in toxic relationships from that early age. While we need to be kind and respectful to everyone in a childcare setting we do not need to be 'friends' with everyone and as an adult we would not want to be forced to play with someone who was hitting, biting or harming us in anyway.)
The evening ended with the recap that when children have the skills to do better they do better and when they are struggling it is because they do not have the skills to meet our expectations and we need to help them bridge those gaps!
Compassion unfolds naturally. Eventually young children will say sorry and really mean it. Until then, lead them towards a deeper understating of feelings, and encourage them to observe the situation and then take action.
Afterward educators are sent a reflective questionnaire to help us to engage in transferring the knowledge gained into practice.
1. What will you continue to think more about?
Digging deeper into the role of 'social norms in relation to our expectations of children' in our practice and are they really 'best practice' in face of what we know now about the brain and child development compared to 10, 20 or 30 years ago?