My four and ten-year-olds were in the car the other day. It was about fifteen minutes after some sort of brawl (which are unfortunately common in our household of six). My ten-year-old was sick and my four-year-old was, well, being a four-year-old. What happened with the brawl doesn’t matter, but I was showing the strain of multiple days with sick kids, and I was feeling less than charitable. We were sitting quietly at a stoplight when four-year-old Anna broke the silence.
“Shashah?” (that is what she calls my son), “I am sowwy.”
He responded, “It’s okay, I forgive you.”
All of the strain and exhaustion left me with that simple exchange.
My daughter is four years old and she knew that she was in the wrong—for whatever she did. She knew that her brother was hurting because of what she did, and she knew how to make it better. It isn’t because she is an exceptionally tender child or because she is intellectually brilliant. It isn’t because her mom is trained as a child development expert. It is because she has seen the behavior modeled in our family, and she knows how to repair a relationship.
Psychologists will warn parents not to “make” kids say they are sorry until they can really understand the concept of what it means to be sorry for their actions. When our older kids were young, I tried hard not to force the “I am sorry.” By the time Anna came around, the other kids were modeling the behavior and she was expected (by them) to apologize when she made a mistake. Because of this, she picked up the concept of reconciliation and forgiveness better than any of them.
We haven’t always done this, but in our family, we now require apologies when someone is wronged. They don’t have to be elaborate, and they don’t have to happen right away, but they need to happen once the kids have calmed down. I don’t think you can expect a four-year-old to apologize for pulling her sister’s hair when they are both still hysterical. But once the tears are wiped away, there is a practice of reconciliation that must happen between the two parties. Whomever is in the wrong (usually both of them) needs to apologize for their actions and ask for forgiveness. Kids don’t always want to do the right thing. That is one of the reasons why parents are so important.
Saying you’re sorry isn’t such a big deal, unless you never learn to do it.
We need to give even our youngest children the baby steps towards understanding what it means to say sorry, and that starts with the words “I am sorry” and “I forgive you,” coming from our—”the parents”—mouths. We, as parents, are bound to make a mistake every once in a while. When that happens, you also need to apologize for your wrongdoings. Apologize for tugging a little hard when you comb through those tangles, apologize when you mix up the lunches, apologize when you knock over the books or keep a child waiting when they need something.
Children are like little sponges soaking up words, attitudes and behaviors.
Children are like little sponges soaking up words, attitudes and behaviors. They model everything: cognitive, social and emotional behaviors alike. When the whole family adopts a behavior and the children practice it, they eventually internalize the actions. The younger they start, the more normal it becomes.
Just as we require the kids to eat their veggies, brush their teeth and wear a seatbelt, we too should require them to do things like apologize—to both seek out and provide forgiveness.
Families are a beautiful place to model forgiveness and parents set a great example of mercy in practice. Setting up a culture of forgiveness in your home has both short and long-term benefits. The practice of asking for and receiving forgiveness is more than just a lifelong habit.