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How can I help my child apologize?


How can I help my son (4.5 years old) say sorry? Recently he and his friend have been making fun of kids at school who speak differently. They both called the kids stupid. Of course we told them this was wrong, that all voices sound different. Today they both said to someone (an adult friend) that their nose was funny. We tried to repeat the same lesson but I wanted to see what the best way is to encourage a kid to apologize and to feel other people’s realities. He’s too shy to say sorry in person and my first thought was maybe to withhold something from him. But then I thought I don’t want him to say sorry for the wrong reason like he’s not doing it out of his own kindness but just out of fear. Then I thought maybe if he recorded himself saying sorry he would be less shy doing that but that seems like the easy way out. Any thoughts? B.B., Washington


Dear B.B.

You have identified a very important part of growing up. It’s the need to have empathy and understand another person’s reality besides one’s own. That is a lesson that even adults grapple with! When one understands another’s feelings then one has compassion, a sign of true maturity.

As a four-year-old your son is working hard at learning how to communicate and relate to others. Even though he is still in his physical years, 0-6, where he learns primarily through his body, he is now interested in having meaningful interaction with other children. That is an essential skill that needs to be learned. As he grows near his feeling years, 6-12 years, he is ready to learn and understand more about his feelings and actions and how they affect others.

With children of that age, you can find a great resource in children’s books. I highly recommend reading picture books to him about feelings and empathy. At the top of my list is the book Have You Filled a Bucket Today: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud. As a TK/Kindergarten teacher I have seen how readily the children understood the concepts introduced in this picture book.

In the book, it states that we all carry an invisible bucket in our hearts that holds our good thoughts and good feelings about ourselves. Each person can fill someone else’s bucket and help them to feel good through kind words or actions or they can empty it by doing the opposite.

A great activity after you read this book is to make a game out of thinking of different things that you do with others and identify them as either bucket fillers or bucket dippers. For example, if you share your Legos with your friend, are you being a bucket filler or bucket dipper? If someone doesn’t include you in a game, are they a bucket filler or bucket dipper? Since he is still in his physical years it’s great to have a real container or bucket and objects to fill or empty as you think of examples.

Another important point about helping children of any age is remembering that what you focus on you get more of. So, yes, first it’s important to help your son understand that his actions are hurtful. If he sees that he was being a bucket dipper by his unkind comments, then he can be a bucket filler by saying he is sorry.

Once he is used to the bucket filling game then you can say something like, “Oh dear, were you being a bucket filler or a bucket dipper? Let’s refill his bucket and say you’re sorry.” If, as you said, he is shy to say it in spoken words you can help him to think of a way to fill the other child’s bucket, to make them feel better. Perhaps making them a card with lots of stickers. If you are there at the moment it happens, it’s okay to give them the words to say or even say the words for them and model how to give a sincere apology.

Then, since you get more of what you focus on, it’s important to be on the lookout when he is being a bucket filler so that you can be sure and show him that you notice. The biggest reward for children is our attention, showing that we truly see and appreciate them. Try and catch him when he is being kind, sharing, and bringing positive energy to any situation. All you need to do is notice and narrate what you see. That is one of the best rewards. You can say things like, “Wow, I saw that! You shared your Legos with your friend. Hey, you’re a bucket filler!” If you add some deep eye contact, a smile, or a hug then you have given him a nurturing reward that will fill both your heart buckets.

The last thing I will add is the reminder that it takes something like 5 positive feedbacks to overcome 1 criticism. So, if you catch him being a bucket dipper then try and catch him at least 5 times being a bucket filler soon after. Once children have that bucket filling image in their minds it helps them to have a more concrete example to understand their actions and how it affects other people’s feelings.

Asking questions is an important part of parenting. I hope these ideas answer some of your questions and give you more tools in your parenting kit.

Wishing you well!



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