You’re 4 years old and your favorite toy is a mini helicopter your dad bought you. You LOVE the helicopter and you have taken extra care not to damage it. You put it up on the shelf when you are done playing with it so that your little brother (who is 2) doesn’t break it.
One day, you’re playing with your helicopter on the floor and you look away for a moment to arrange your pretend landing pad. In that instant, your little brother swipes the helicopter and runs. You yell after him, “Give that back! GIVE IT BACK!” You chase him. He’s laughing. When you get close enough you grab your little brother and grab the helicopter from his hands. In doing so, you knock your little brother over and he starts crying for Mommy. Mommy comes in, takes one look at the scene and asks, “Did you push your brother?!” You say that you did but only because he took your helicopter and wouldn’t give it back and you didn’t mean to push him you were only trying to get the helicopter back but he kept running and -- Mommy says, “That’s enough. It doesn’t matter why. Say you’re sorry!” You put your arms across your chest, cast your eyes down, and mumble, “I’m sorry.”
How is 4 year-old you feeling? Are you thinking to yourself, “Wow, I really made a mistake. I could’ve done that differently. Next time I’ll do better.”? Or are you thinking, “Wow, my little brother gets away with everything. None of this would have happened if he hadn’t taken my helicopter. I’m never sharing anything with him, EVER. Mom must love his more.”?
The truth is parents rarely know what is really going on between children when a conflict arises. Even if a parent watched one incident happen right in front of them, the parent still does not know if something preceded that particular incident or what, perhaps, mistaken perceptions one or both children had in the moment. Forcing one child to apologize when he/she probably doesn’t mean it is not only forcing a child to lie, it’s inviting discouragement from one or both children and possibly creating or reinforcing a child’s mistaken belief about himself or the world around him (for more about mistaken beliefs see “Positive Discipline” by Dr. Jane Nelsen).
Rudolf Dreikurs noted, “Children are great perceivers but poor interpreters.” When Mom demanded 4 year-old you to apologize for knocking down your brother, she invalidated your experience and feelings of frustration, failed to acknowledge your attempts to “use your words”, and decided who was the victim and who was the aggressor without the whole story. In simple terms, she chose sides. Mom probably saw her 4 year-old and thought, “You should know better. You’re so much bigger than your brother. You have more skills than he does.” However, 4 year-old you may have perceived that Mom chose sides and interpreted that as Mom loving little brother more. We all know Mom doesn’t really love little brother more than 4-year old you, but 4 year-old you’s mistaken belief that she does is your reality, and that is discouraging. Believing that your feelings and your experience don’t matter is discouraging.
Furthermore, how does an empty apology feel to the child receiving it? Children can tell the difference between a genuine apologize and a forced apology. My guess, as I remember back to my childhood, is that the child on the receiving end either feels upset knowing that the other child isn’t sorry at all or feels like the victor for being picked by the adult as the victim. What does a child interpret from that? Perhaps the child decides empty apologies are ok. Perhaps the child learns that he doesn’t have to take responsibility for his part in a conflict as long as he doesn't get in trouble. Perhaps the child learns that feelings don’t matter as long as the adults decide who is right and wrong.
The importance of making amends for mistakes made is an important lesson for children. There are ways parents can address conflict between young children without inviting discouragement. I say young children because as children grow older they are (hopefully) developing the skills they need to navigate conflicts without adult involvement. Instead of forcing my children (ages 2 and 4) to apologize when they don’t mean it, I am teaching them to use three words. "Are you ok?" I tell them if you have hurt someone’s body or feelings, accidentally or on purpose, you stop what you’re doing and ask, “Are you ok?” My 4 year-old sometimes forgets and I will ask him, “Your friend looks upset/hurt. Is there something you’d like to ask your friend right now?” He will stop what he’s doing and ask, “Are you ok?”
“Are you ok?”
Those three words can be very powerful. Asking if the other child is ok does not force a child to assume the role of aggressor. It does not invalidate his feelings. It doesn’t choose sides. What it does do is create space in a moment of conflict. It allows both children to connect in a way that isn’t threatening to either’s sense of who was right and who was wrong. It teaches empathy. And it allows me, the parent, to follow up with other tools at the appropriate time that encourage my child to make amends for mistakes made and to want to do better next time. Saying, “I’m sorry,” is always an option, so long as it is genuine.
Positive Discipline offers many tools for parents to utilize in situations such as these. Some of the tools I use regularly include (but certainly are not limited to): validating feelings, putting children in the same boat, using a cool-out space, embracing mistakes as opportunities to learn, and modeling. I encourage every parent and adult who works with children to explore the resources Positive Discipline has to offer. You will find a link to Positive Discipline resources below.