How often do you find yourself using these words? Are they really accomplishing what you want?

What are your kids learning?

  • I can get out of trouble by lying. Sometimes saying I’m sorry is used like a GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card. The attitude is “If I just say I’m sorry, Mom won’t be mad anymore.”
  • It’s not important how I feel. I may feel perfectly justified in my behavior. I may be glad the other child is hurt, crying, upset. Or I may feel devastated by what I did. Whether or not the child is really sorry is irrelevant.
  • My sister or brother matters more than me. The victim may be manipulating the situation to get the bully in trouble. You are perpetuating the cycle, allowing the kids to bring you into every squabble and allowing every interaction to be about whom Mom or Dad loves best.
  • What really counts is power. The big person can make the small person do things, say things – its about humiliation.

Let’s consider a scenario. You hear the scream and find your 5 year old standing over your 3 year old, David, who is crying and holding his arm. When David sees you he says, “Jason hit me!”

What are your options:
1. Walk away – no blood drawn. If you need to talk, say: “If you two can’t get along, you’ll have to go into different rooms (or put the toys away, etc).” Make the kids responsible for their own behavior AND for working out a solution.
2. Mediate – this is an ongoing problem and you know it will escalate from here. “Okay, I see that you two are unable to share this game (or toy, space). What can you suggest to work this out?” If neither child responds, offer a choice. “You can find a way to share or you can each play with something else.”
3. Intervene – the victim is really in pain. You can’t let this go. ‘”When you hurt each other, I feel really frustrated. Let’s all take a timeout and then we can talk about what happened.” Note that you are not assessing blame. Both kids may, and probably do, have some responsibility for what happened. Then when everyone is calmer, sit down together. “What happened?” “What were you feeling, Jason? David?……….” “I understand that it is hard for you when your brother ………………..” “Can you think of a better way to deal with this situation than hurting each other?” “I’d like each of you to take some time to think about your responsibility in this unhappiness.” You are all problem-solving, not assessing blame and handing out punishments.

Establish goals for yourself, have a plan for what you will do when the kids fight.

1. Institute clear household rules, enforce them consistently and dispassionately. “In our house we don’t hit each other. You need to be alone for 10 minutes (depending on the age of the child). I’ll set the timer. Do you want to sit in your room or on the stairs?”
2. Have a realistic picture of why kids fight: sibling issues, lack of communication skills, too young to control aggressive impulses. Recognize that most kids fight, most kids are capable of hurting others and your role is to help them find better ways to deal with their frustration and anger. These are teachable moments.
3. Work on teaching the capacity to empathize. “Look how unhappy he is.” “Why do you think your brother acted this way?’ “What do you think you could do to make him feel better?”
4. Establish a rule that we are responsible for our actions PERIOD. If you break something, you replace it. If you scratch your brother, you get the bandaids. If you knock over the blocks, you pick them up. To be sure your strategy is about responsibility and not punishment, you could offer to help.
5. One of the best ways to teach kids about apologies is to use them yourself. When you say a heart-felt “I’m sorry” your kids learn about how much it can mean from the receiver’s side. It’s a great opportunity to teach them what an apology is. Add a description that explains exactly what you are sorry for doing and how you expect to do better next time. “I’m sorry I yelled at you about the mess in the family room. Next time I will talk to you in a nice voice and work out a plan to solve the problem.” Be sure you are modeling a sincere apology. An insincere apology like: “I’m sorry I yelled at you about the mess in the family room, but you always leave your toys all over the house” will train your kids to make apologies that are really an attempt to blame the victim for your bad behavior instead of acknowledging responsibility and planning for improvement.

There are developmental issues that are important to understand in disciplining your children. Jean Piaget, noted child psychologist, believed that characteristics of moral reasoning are not fully in place until a child reaches age 8 or 9. A young child’s capacity to define behavior as unacceptable is based on the anticipated reactions of adults, not on internalized moral feelings. A child will decide not to throw a block at another child not because it’s wrong to hurt someone else, but because he’ll get in trouble with Mom.

Between the ages of 5 to 7 a child develops the capacity to understand intentionality. Before that, he/she does not distinguish whether a child tripped and fell into his legos spaceship or knocked it over on purpose. It’s not until a child is 8 or 9 that he/she is able to consider events from someone else’s point of view and assess their motivation.

While these cognitive skills develop in the middle of childhood, the capacity for empathy begins in infancy. Studies find that infants become upset by another child’s tears. When a one year-old begins to realize that he/she exists apart from other people, he/she will imitate the distress of others. As a two year-old, a child will try to comfort others in distress. According to Daniel Goleman, author of The Nature of Emotional Intelligence, “Children were more empathic when the discipline included calling strong attention to the distress their misbehavior caused someone else: ‘Look how sad you’ve made her feel’ instead of ‘That was naughty’.”

What is it we want when are children misbehave? We want recognition that they have made a mistake. An “Oops, my bad” is a first step. We’re looking for really acknowledging what went wrong. The next thing we want is a plan to do better in the future. Without this, apologies mean very little. Can they articulate what better would look like? Do they sound sincere in this goal? Lastly, we want restitution. What can you do to make it better? If something is broken, fix it or replace it (if possible and reasonable). If someone’s feelings are hurt, what will help with those feelings? One mom asked her misbehaving child to write down ten things he loved about his brother. She said it took a long time but was meaningful to both of them. If someone is physically hurt, what can you do to help? Band aid, ice, distraction by entertaining them?

When you tell children to “Say you’re sorry” you are taking over responsibility for their actions. Instead, focus on helping them recognize what they did wrong and how to fix it. As your children grow, they will be able to internalize the voice that says what they did wrong and how they can fix it. And then, hopefully, the voice will become strong enough to stop the behavior.

Pam Mintz
YMCA Youth & Family Services
[email protected]

Wadsworth, Barry Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive and Affective Development, Longman Publisheres, USA, 1996
Goleman, Daniel The Nature of Emotional Intelligence Bantam Books, 1995