When we think about what we want for our children as they mature into grownups, many things come to mind. Some of these may include health, happiness, strength of character, kindness, traits of collaborating with others, and/or being productive and responsible members of their communities and the world they live in. In the day to day work of parenting young children, our values might be observed in our efforts to help our children learn some common basic social rules such as sharing a toy or apologizing to others when they do something upsetting to a friend.
"Say you're sorry." It's a common phrase heard from adult to child in many contexts. I can recall vividly adults in my childhood expecting that I apologize to my brother or a friend after a conflict. I would resist for a very long time, not because I was refusing to comply or cooperate, but because I felt angry and justified and I understood that I would be lying if I apologized, which felt fake and useless. In those moments, I also felt profoundly misunderstood and disconnected from the adults who were attempting to make everything okay in the best way they knew how. Now, I see that not only was it fake and useless for me to say sorry in those moments, it worked against any real communication or healing.
These memories may be something you can resonate with in some way. This brings me to the one, most helpful thing I try to remember as a teacher and a parent. I try to think about when I'm unsure how to proceed with my own child-- How would I feel, now, if someone approached me in the way that adults often approach children? What if another adult or friend asked me today to apologize for something I did when I was still upset?
At preschool, we don't ask children to apologize. This might seem alarming or confusing, so we wanted to explain this approach in more depth. Do we offer an apology as a possible solution to the upset? Occasionally, yes. If we feel that the child is upset about what happened and that they want to make amends, we might say "Did you want to say sorry?" What we don't do is demand an expression of emotion that the child may not be feeling. Children aren't always ready to apologize, they may feel too ashamed or upset for other reasons regarding their own needs. Honestly, in many situations, adults aren't always ready, either.
You might see our teachers apologize for a situation themselves, as an acknowledgement of the offended child and as a model for the child who did something upsetting, "I'm so sorry that happened, are you okay?" We keep the children safe and in communication with each other. We take the time to hear and reflect their feelings. We first might call attention to what happened and how the children are feeling. This is a kind of narration, and helps children to process and become more conscious of the events and feelings. "I noticed that when you pushed him, Billy looked down and his face looks really sad to me." We then empower the child who was pushed to speak up. For example, "Billy, can you tell him please don't push me?" We also will discuss what provoked the child who pushed, to try to solve the initial issue and to help that child understand that there are other, peaceful ways to meet their needs.
How can we as teachers, parents, grownups, support our children towards empathy, community and social graces? How can we do this without putting them in the position of expressing a sentiment they aren't feeling or ready to express? Is expecting young children to apologize working to educate our children to feel remorse, and drawing their attention to their own impact on others?
One thing we have learned in our practice with young children throughout the years is that children will apologize on their own for the things that happen that they didn't intend or even in instances where they were upset. They won't always do it, but over time we are modeling these social graces and they are learning. They are watching us very closely. If we are genuine and connected and caring for others around us, they see that and it becomes their mental map of how to be with others.