Teaching kids to say I’m sorry

What are two of the hardest words to say, in the English language?

“I’m sorry.”

The words themselves aren’t that hard to say. The sentence is a teeny one. It’s only eight letters in all. However, the meaning behind the words makes them incredibly hard to say.

Sure, you can say the words and add a few extras, such as;

I’m sorry you felt that way.

I’m sorry I did that, but you deserved it.

I’m sorry (with the included eye roll and exasperated puff of air)

But none of those really hit the mark on what it means to truly apologize. It boggles my mind how people are content with allowing relationships to die, just because they are unwilling to apologize for some hurt they have caused. I’m wondering if the reason why adults have such a hard time sincerely apologizing, is because they were never really taught how to do it.

Teach your kids to say, "I'm sorry." is a life skill. The key here is addressing the heart, rather than teaching our children the right words to say.

We want our children to learn how to apologize, because it is a skill that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. Apologies are often times the mark that helps us identify those who live their faith and those who just talk about it. It isn’t something that is natural. Apologizing for things, even things that you don’t think you did wrong, is not easy. It is something that can only be done with humility and putting the other person first. It is also something that takes practice to do. The Bible calls us to:

“Do nothing out of
selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility
consider others better than yourselves. Each of you
should look not only to your own interests, but
also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4; see
Matt. 22:39; 1 Cor. 13:5; Matt. 7:12).
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We mess up constantly in this home. Gracie steps on Benjamin’s toe. Benjamin takes a toy she was playing with. Levi throws his food on the floor and then waits for a reaction. I use a bad tone with one of the kids (or the hubby). Greg says something unloving. Messing up is definitely something we have mastered in this home. My desire is that we will be just as good (or better) at fixing it, as we are at messing it up.

 We have taught our kids that when they do something that hurts another person, the relationship is broken. It can be something simple and unintentional, such as accidentally spilling milk all over someone. Or it could be very intentional and manipulative, like stealing a toy from the baby brother. We have taught out little ones that it is their job to make right any offense they have caused. In order to restore that relationship, they need to apologize and seek forgiveness.

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Let’s say Benjamin took Gracie’s favorite stuffed animal. We have taught our children that first of all, they need to try and work it out themselves. Gracie will say something like, “Benjamin, please give me back my Gorilla.” or “It made me sad when you took my Gorilla.” That is usually Benjamin’s chance to make it right. Most of the time, he will respond, “I’m sorry, will you please forgive me?” He then gives is back. The conflict is solved in less than a few minutes.

A few notes about this; there are times with the person causing the offense doesn’t want to apologize. That is our chance to intervene, as parents. Most of the time, we don’t have to get involved, they work it out themselves; but it does happen, sometimes. Also, if it is an offense, like hitting a sibling, then after they apologize and seek forgiveness they can hug and move on. If it is an offense that needs restitution, that should be addressed. For example; if Benjamin took her Gorilla, he can’t just say, “I’m sorry” and keep it. He needs to also give it back to her.

This has been instrumental in our home. Teaching our children about forgiveness has radically changed me and my parenting, as well. I know that one thing I want to do in my parenting is take responsibility for the hurt I cause. Often times, I cause hurt and don’t even realize it. Apologizing to our children for the hurt we cause can be one of the best things for our kids, and yet it is something that parents don’t often do. Pride is a heavy deterrent to healthy relationships. There have been times when I had a bad tone with Gracie and she has told me. I wanted to tell her to just get over it. (I mean, really.) But, instead, I had to fight my selfishness and apologize. Many of the times, I can say I’m sorry, but I forget to say, “Will you forgive me?” She doesn’t ever hesitate to remind me.

Also, when the offense is a deeper heart issue, we try to be intentional to have the children ask for forgiveness from God as well. One of those moments recently when I messed up, I told Gracie I was sorry and asked for forgiveness. A few moments later, she piped in, “Now, ask God for forgiveness.” My children are one of the greatest instruments of God’s truth in my life!teaching kids to say I'm sorry (3)

The best thing about this is that we aren’t just teaching our children how to apologize, we are also teaching them the skills to deal with conflict in a healthy and holy way. These steps are basically the same steps you would take as an adult dealing with conflict.

For those of you who just want the simple version, here you go!

Teaching Kids to Say I’m Sorry (offended’s role)

  1. Talk it out: The offended child expresses their feelings about what happened. -For example: When you took my toy, it made me sad.
  2. Take another person: If the other person doesn’t address the issue and resolve it, then get an adult to help.
  3. Once an apology is made, and restitution if necessary, forgive and move on.

Teaching Kids to Say I’m Sorry (offender’s role)

  1.  Listen and make eye contact while the person explains their hurt.
  2. Apologize for the hurt, be specific.
  3. Ask for forgiveness.
  4. Seek forgiveness from others (including God), if necessary.
  5. Make restitution, if necessary – For example: If the child broke her brother’s toy, she must pay for a new one.
  6. Joyfully move on.

These steps are basically the same steps that adults should make with each other. However, in a culture of conflict avoidance, often times people choose to break relationship rather than make right a hurt that was caused. For more on adult conflict resolution, check out this conflict field guide.

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Here’s a parenting challenge for you, too. This isn’t just kid’s play, these are things we should be doing with our children, constantly. It is our job as parents to model for them how to seek forgiveness. I KNOW something will happen today in your family that will hurt you OR that you will need to seek forgiveness for. Take the step to model forgiveness (both giving and getting) for your children.