Best of Afterthoughts, Other Thoughts

Should I Make My Child Apologize? (Part One)

June 26, 2013 by Brandy Vencel
Training children in hypocrisy since 2002.

This past week I went for my monthly meeting with my sweet reading group, and the question came up about requiring apologies of children who “don’t feel like it.” It came to my attention that all of us at the table had been running into an elevated fear of hypocrisy that is found in some Christian circles. It was pointed out in this conversation that the popular mothering book Give Them Grace contains this exact sort of teaching*. The teaching is this:

If we encourage children to ask for forgiveness when their hearts haven’t been stricken by the rod of the Holy Spirit’s conviction, we are training them to be hypocritical. We are inadvertently teaching them that false professions of sorrow will satisfy God.

p. 104

As the human heart is a great mystery, this is really an argument from silence — a speculation. Asking a little hard-hearted toddler to say he’s sorry is requiring him to do something he doesn’t want to do, that’s true. But so is requiring him to tell the truth, or to behave mannerly at table. His “authentic self” is more like a savage than the civilized child of a Christian home. To the extent that I require him to do what is right and good when he doesn’t want to, I suppose some might say I was cultivating a little hypocrite.

There is another option, though, of course. For example, what if he’s not learning hypocrisy at all? What if he’s actually learning virtue? What if he’s learning that it is our moral duty to do right, even when we don’t feel like it? What if he’s learning what reconciliation looks like, how it might be initiated, and building a habit of reconciliation that may serve him well in adulthood?

My Experience

I speak to this issue as a mother who has been making children apologize in my house daily for the last eleven or so years. I cannot, however, speak as a mother who has interviewed her grown children about the results, so take this with a grain of salt.

Once our children were old enough to apologize (they could talk, for example), we expected them to do so. This includes the customary apology for accidents — if I run into you and cause you to drop something, if I accidentally step on your toe, if I drop my water bottle and it splashed your shirt, I say I’m sorry. This is good manners, and so I do it, and if you live in my house and know how to talk, I expect you to do it, too.

In addition to accidents, we also train them to apologize when they wrong someone else. Did they steal someone’s car because they had to have it Right Now? An apology is part of the process of dealing with that transgression. Did they say something mean? They need to apologize. You get the idea.

The person who is offended is expected to forgive. I figure if we’re going to train hypocrites, we might as well go all the way. So I require sulky children to say, “I forgive you.” If they say it too grudgingly, I make them say it again, because I am a Mean Mom.

So here’s the deal. For eleven years, I’ve been training my children in hypocrisy, and something interesting has happened: reconciliation has become part of our family culture. Whereas I used to spend a fair amount of time on apology-and-forgiveness coaching, now it is rare that we have an incident in which I have to intervene.

The dynamics are fascinating to me. My children now remind each other that they should apologize.

There has been more than one occasion this past week where I was doing what I always do, which is to say eavesdropping on my children (eavesdropping is imperative if you are practicing Masterly Inactivity), and forgiveness came up.  One particular day, there was a spat between two of the four parties in the room. As the situation escalated, it became apparent that the child who was in the wrong didn’t intend to apologize. As I was pondering my own intervention, the two uninvolved parties began to whisper and watch what was happening. Together, they went and confronted the Child Who Was Wrong and reminded her that the right thing to do was to apologize. Said Child Who Was Wrong became so red in the face that she almost exploded. Just when I thought I was going to need to get involved, she deflated, admitted they were right, turned to the offended party, and said she was sorry.

She was forgiven, and play resumed without further incident.

Training Hypocrisy? I Disagree!

Next time we’ll talk about this in greater detail, but for now I will just say that so far my experience tells me that training small children to apologize is more like training them in manners. They are learning how to deal with their wrongs. We are a reconciling people, reconciliation is our ministry, and yet many Christians spend lots of time nursing their personal injuries. We are all born with the tendency to hold on to grudges, or be too prideful to apologize. We are sinners, after all. Teaching toddlers and preschoolers to apologize provides them with good habits that defend them against these natural tendencies.

I’m not saying that I would walk up to a teen (if I had one) and tell him to apologize, Or Else. But I personally am entirely comfortable with training the habit of apologizing and forgiving from the very beginning of the parenting journey.

*Please don’t consider this a dismissal of the entire book. I like the book.


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32 Comments

  • Reply Candace Del Valle June 28, 2018 at 9:25 pm

    Yes! I was about to roll my eyes and exit, and then I read that you felt the same as I do about some new parenting philosophies. Very well written response to that. I while heartedly agree with you. Some things must be practiced, hard things must be taught, manners must be respected. Teaching my children to apologize is teaching them to respect others, in turn they will respect themselves as they grow.

  • Reply Roxana June 30, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    I just stumbled across your blog because I am drowning in AO while prepping to home-school my almost 6 year old in September.

    Of course, I started poking around your site and so far I LOVE what I’ve read, and I LOVE this post. I completely agree with everything you say. Thank you so much! I make my 5 1/2 and 3 1/2 year old do all these things. My 5 month old is not verbal :).

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading more! Thank you so much for all you share!

    In Christ,
    Roxana

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 30, 2017 at 7:24 pm

      Ah, thanks for commenting, Roxana! And also: welcome to the beautiful world of AO! ♥

  • Reply C.B. Grace August 1, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    You may be my new hero. I am not a parenting expert but I have been doing this since my son was small. We have fostered several children and adopted along the way. Apologies and forgiveness go a long way. If we teach them when they are young to apologize and empathize with others they will be adults who are quick to apologize and quick to repent.

  • Reply Lynette July 17, 2016 at 10:15 pm

    Thank-you for affirming what I’ve already seen. I currently have 4 children 5 and under. I wasn’t sure whether to force them to say sorry or not. But I was amazed to watch how the act of saying sorry totally changed their attitude and demeanor – even as toddlers. My oldest 2 are incredibly willful so the fact is they wouldn’t say it until they meant it anyway, but once they said it everything changed.

    I read that in Give Them Grace and totally disagreed. They’re not learning to be hypocrites. They’re learning to be sorry. It’s hard to be sorry, but they know they need to be. I do still like a lot in that book though.

  • Reply Karen February 28, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    Amen sister! I’m in the process of raising five hypocrites myself;) My husband and I have always felt instead of hypocrisy, we are actually pointing our children to Jesus and His redemptive love. Love this and your writing. Thanks Brandy!

  • Reply amy in peru July 4, 2013 at 1:59 am

    we require an ‘i’m sorry’ and a ‘will you forgive me’, immediately with small children (habit training), but with our older children we do sometimes allow that to take place after a period of time when necessary. however, we try to stress the importance of resolving their issues promptly and not allowing themselves to soak overnight in their stinkiness. i want the best of both worlds, i want them to apologize & ask for forgiveness AND i want them to be sincerely sorry. 🙂

    on that note, i always remind the offended party that the bible says we are to forgive like jesus did. and he didn’t wait for us to say sorry first. ‘while we were yet sinners, christ died…’ so, we are to forgive whether or not we are asked to.

    p.s. i like the book. i think there is a LOT of great practical advice. i’m appreciative for your careful thinking, too! 🙂

  • Reply shellatte June 27, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    This was great! I heard from someone years ago that he believes in the Behavior Method of training…or something like that. If you want your kids to be thankful, make them act as if they are…thank you cards, saying thank you, etc. The “feeling” follows the habit of the behavior. If you and your husband aren’t getting along any more, ACT like you love him to pieces and the feeling is more likely to follow. Waiting for the feeling before acting the correct way doesn’t work. I feel the same way about making children apologize and forgive.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 28, 2013 at 3:59 am

      shellatte, that is something like the angle I’m taking in future posts, though admittedly action alone cannot change the heart.

      To some extent I think the new legalism is to not appear legalistic at any cost, so I thought I’d bring all of this up before women start gasping at the park when I tell my kid to apologize to their kid. 🙂

    • Reply Mystie June 28, 2013 at 4:46 am

      “To some extent I think the new legalism is to not appear legalistic at any cost.”

      Wow! I think you’re on to something! Hm, I will be mulling on that one. 🙂

  • Reply Susan in St. Louis June 27, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    Although I am only six years into parenting, I’m not sure I can totally agree with you. We have required our children to say, “I was wrong to do ___. Will you forgive me?” (or, “I accidentally did ___. Will you forgive me?”) I believe that forcing them to say “I’m sorry” when they are not isn’t enforcing truth-telling, which I value very highly. However, having them confess (even if they don’t want to) to the wrong/accident is a statement of truth regardless of where their hearts are. I suppose time will show whether this bears fruit in our family; I pray that it does!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 28, 2013 at 3:50 am

      Susan, I just wanted to make sure you know that my motive here is NOT to convince anyone to do as I do. Rather, I want to explain that there is another way to view this sort of thing. With that said, I encourage you to continue in your convictions and I hope you reap much fruit, too. 🙂

    • Reply Susan in St. Louis June 28, 2013 at 6:51 pm

      Thanks, Brandy! 🙂

  • Reply Naomi June 27, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    What we do is suggest that the child should apologize, usually by saying something like, “What do you think you should do/say to make this better?” (ie, in kid language, ‘how can you reconcile now?’). I don’t force them because I grew up in a home where it was forced. Having come from this background, at least in our home, this was not true reconciliation. It was more – he said he was sorry, whether he meant it or not is one thing, but since he said it you must get over being hurt (even though he continued in his bad behavior and didn’t really mean it). Obviously I grew up in a rather dysfunctional family. So maybe in a healthier setting it’s a bit different, but I’m a little scarred from forcing apologies on people. I guess I just don’t want to hear one that’s not heartfelt, personally, especially if said behavior is not really going to change. I still need to work on forgiveness either way, so to me it doesn’t really matter one way or another.

    Having said that, my children readily apologize and mean it most of the time. I think this is where modeling comes in. I always try to apologize myself genuinely, as does my husband. I think our modeling has really made the difference. There are times when the child doesn’t want to apologize now, but often he’ll come back later w/ that genuine apology. This leaves room for the offended to deal w/ forgiveness either way, and makes it clear to the offender that reconciliation is necessary, but it still is their choice – bc really, it is. As adults, we don’t *have to* apologize, even when we know it is best. As adults, we can’t *require* apologies from others, and often likely can’t expect them.

    So I guess I’m somewhere in between.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 27, 2013 at 2:44 pm

      I think you bring out a few important points here, Naomi! One of the things I took away was that as a parent, if I’m going to require an apology of a child, I need to make sure said child doesn’t continue in the offense toward others–that just embitters the offended child, especially if the offended child was required to forgive! I found myself wondering–and I hope you don’t mind me asking–were these required apologies/forgiving when you were older? I ask because I know we have naturally made transitions from habit-training the process to working more as counselors that encourage the process as our children have gotten older.

      I think you are right that modeling will always be the most powerful thing–the adults in the house apologizing to each other, and also to the children.

      Another thing I see in your comment is the need to transition kids to adulthood. We already had one incident with our oldest where he accidentally hurt another boy his age at co-op, and so he apologized. That child didn’t say “I forgive you” as is our family habit. Even worse, he showed signs of holding a grudge! My son was horrified! But really it was an opportunity to discuss that other families don’t teach this, that not everyone will actually express their forgiveness, and that he’ll need to learn to deal with that. The Bible says, “As far as it concerns you…” and that is what he’ll have to do–deal with himself, making sure that he has tried to strive for peace in his relationships. As they get older, it isn’t as cut and dry as a toddler impulsively stealing toys. 🙂

    • Reply Mystie June 27, 2013 at 2:55 pm

      Naomi, I think your point about the parents modeling reconciliation is the real lynchpin, regardless of the method implemented. Perhaps that is the real key to avoiding hypocrisy. Worse than kids saying “sorry” and not meaning it is parents who require their children to request and extend forgiveness when they don’t themselves.

      And what’s humbling and maddening is when your child stands there, waiting for you to apologize to them with wide eyes. 🙂

    • Reply Naomi July 24, 2013 at 8:23 pm

      Brandie, sorry for the late response. I was just thinking about this topic the other day and realized I never checked back into your blog to read the comments or the other posts. I guess I’m not sure what you are asking in your question. Are you asking if the required apology/forgiveness was still required as we got to be older children? If so – yes, they were.

      Anyway, looking forward to catching up w/ your blog and reading the rest of this series! 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel July 24, 2013 at 9:53 pm

      Welcome back, Naomi!

      And yes, that was what I was asking. 🙂 I asked because in practice around here those types of requirements seem to change around ages 9 or 10. With my 11yo I don’t think I’d make him apologize, but I’d rather remind him that he knows what he ought to do, and that I’ll pray he does the right thing.

  • Reply Queen of Carrots June 26, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    I am not consistent enough with anything to say “we do X” but I do feel that the words “I am sorry,” are simple social niceties, like “thank you” and do not require any deep personal feeling to be appropriate. To a child who has done harm even unintentionally, I can point out, “You can still be sorry your sibling is in pain.” And since they are not sadists, they generally are sorry to at least that degree (or sorry the sibling is screaming O:-) ). Often I think they are sorry, but are uncomfortable with admitting fault–which is hard to do for anyone.
    I have personal discomfort with the words, “I was wrong, please forgive me,” but that is due to associations of my own and they may well be perfectly harmless words.
    For me the main thing is the reconciliation, so whether that is accomplished by words or hugs or simply an overture of a shared toy, it is sufficient. And if someone does not wish to attempt reconciliation, then they can remain outcast from society until they are willing to participate in appropriate social behavior.
    None of this touches on very deep moral or spiritual issues, but I do not feel competent to meddle with those.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 26, 2013 at 9:05 pm

      “Social niceties”–that is a good way to put it! I agree with you, of course.

      Now that I’m thinking about this, I think part of this is a resistance on my part to overspiritualizing the transgressions of children. I just don’t think they are in need of Biblical counseling because they stole their brother’s toy train, you know?–especially not every. single. time. Oh my. I could be a licensed professional with all my hours of experience if that was the case.

    • Reply Queen of Carrots June 27, 2013 at 3:29 am

      I agree. Something like 98% of all childhood transgressions should be dealt with as briefly as possible, or the child will start counting your nose hairs instead of learning anything. Deep spiritual and moral growth comes from quite a different direction.

  • Reply sara June 26, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    I do make my kids apologize and say, “I forgive you” but I always feel conflicted, especially when it’s said grumpily. *sigh*

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 26, 2013 at 9:05 pm

      You could be mean and tell them to say it again in a nice voice. 😉

  • Reply Mystie June 26, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    I’ve had this conversation with friends, too! One friend of mine gives her child time to “get over themselves” before apologizing. She insists that nothing happens until an apology, but is content to wait and just have that space of nothing before the child is “ready.”

    My tactic has been to change the terms a little bit. My thought years ago was that I wasn’t going to make a child say “I am sorry,” because if they aren’t, then that’s a lie. But even if they aren’t necessarily sorry, they still can and must ask for forgiveness. They can say, “I was wrong to do x, please forgive me.” And, often, it is *after* admitting this truth and having to give up defensiveness and combativeness that then they actually do feel sorry. But, the way I think about it is that I don’t care if they’re sorry or not. 🙂 I care that they’ve had reconciliation, which is about forgiveness.

    I’ve not followed up as well with teaching this process with my second pair, who get into different sorts of spats that the two, close-in-age brothers did. I have just recently been thinking I need to get back to more eavesdropping and instructing. I do find that having them “practice” the right way of doing things (having a “do over,” including a proper apology) does a world of good!

    It’s a teaching thing, not a forcing thing, and it does require wisdom, but teaching the little ones the right way to respond to one another and to offenses is so much better than letting them to their own devices and letting them rot in their own selfishness! Leaving sin unaddressed leads to hardening of hearts toward sin. So, I see it as a form of rescuing them from themselves. And it does work, as you say.

    I liked the book, too, but had several points of either disagreement or just a sense that the wrong place was emphasized. It seemed, perhaps, to be aimed at parents with older, hard-hearted children? Some of the cautions, like the one you quoted, would make sense if you were beginning with an eight or ten year old, but not if you’re beginning with a two year old.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 26, 2013 at 3:48 pm

      I cannot tell you how much I agree with your last paragraph. My concern has been and still is that I’ve met a number of people now in real life who walk away from this book questioning what they are doing with toddlers and preschoolers, and I don’t think that is helpful.

      By the way, we do not *always* use the “I was wrong to do x” format, but we have a lot. In general, I find that it is so important to get them to name their transgression and also declare that it was *wrong*.

    • Reply Mystie June 26, 2013 at 10:22 pm

      We don’t always use that exact formula, either. I usually do try to remember to at least have them say “Please forgive me for ___.” Rather than just plain “Please forgive me.” We got that advice in Moscow from the Wilsons: naming your sin is an important part of repentance. And Nancy once said it was good for boys in particular to have to say “I was wrong.” 🙂

  • Reply Anonymous June 26, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Brandy,
    Thank you for this post. I read this book last summer, and it was this exact quote that you mentioned that made me question the last eleven years in OUR home! I know it is good to rethink why you are doing what you are doing, so I was glad for the challenge. However, I, too, have been asking children to seek reconciliation from the very beginning, and I have come to the conclusion, thus far, that this is bearing fruit in my home. I see my children are not holding grudges, and the very act of asking forgiveness has been good for their hearts. It is a part of who we are as a family, and started with my husband and I, who seek forgiveness on a daily basis as needed. I feel this has been one of the core things in our marriage which has kept us strong and united. We felt the same would be true for our family, which is why we began this with our children, too. I liked the book, for the most part, but appreciate your drawing this point out.
    Warmly,
    Julie in St. Louis

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 26, 2013 at 3:50 pm

      Julie I think I would have had the same response if that was the first time I had heard this line of thinking. That is how I felt after we encountered it in a Sunday School class when our children were tiny. We started questioning ourselves and feeling guilty about it!

  • Reply Daisy June 26, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Have you read “Give Them Grace”? You need to. I don’t think she’d have a problem with what you’ve written in your post. There is a difference between having two kids “make-up” with a simple apology (we all do that without necessarily feeling true remorse) and forcing an outward “requesting forgiveness” when no true repentance is present. “I’m sorry” and “Will you forgive me?” are miles apart in meaning.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 26, 2013 at 2:48 pm

      Yes I’ve read it. Correction: I *am reading* it. 🙂 There are a few things about it that concern me, but overall I like it. Whether she would be okay with it or not, what I am running into locally is that families are taking away the idea that they shouldn’t make children apologize…ever. About five comments are made throughout the book concerning not apologizing, or variations of this, with the culmination on p. 104, part of which I quoted above. I don’t remember her ever saying that it *was* okay to require an apology, but please feel free to correct me if I am wrong! 🙂

    • Reply Daisy June 28, 2013 at 3:29 am

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 28, 2013 at 3:53 am

      Ms. Daisy, I wish you hadn’t deleted you comment! With that said, between you, me, and the Internet, I have very little experience with legalism and I’m aware it can be scarring. 🙁

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