Whenever I ask my son to apologize to someone, he stands there with a grumpy look and refuses to speak. I want him to grow up to be a polite and considerate human being. Help!I remember doing exactly the same thing as your son when I was a child. It just felt wrong to me to say sorry when I wasn’t really sorry. I think your son may be making a statement to you about the importance of honesty. Every time you pressure him to make an apology he doesn’t mean, you are teaching him to lie. Is that what you want him to learn? A child who has been pressured in the past to make lying apologies may find it difficult to speak a genuine apology, even when he is truly sorry, because “saying sorry” means pretense rather than genuine remorse.
So if you don’t require your son to apologize when he’s hurt someone, how do you prevent him growing up to be an ungrateful and inconsiderate person? By teaching him empathy. Empathy is the ability to imagine himself in the other person’s place and see how the other person might feel. Teaching this begins with setting an example – being aware of others’ feelings (including your son’s), and apologizing when you really feel you’re in the wrong. Don’t make phoney apologies yourself, but only make them when you truly mean it. A lot of people, especially women, apologize far too much. We’ve been taught that appearing “nice” is more important than speaking the truth. Being “nice” is not the same as being truly considerate of others.
As you handle conflicts yourself, talk about what you’re doing so your son can see your reasoning. Here are three options for what to say when you’ve had a conflict with someone :
(1) “I realize what I said was hurtful, and I’m truly sorry,”
(2) “I know you felt hurt by what I said but I really didn’t intend to hurt you,” and
(3) “I don’t believe I did anything wrong so I can’t apologize.”
Now, when your son has apparently done something which hurts someone else, help him think it through. Ask him to imagine himself as the other person – have they really been hurt? If not, he shouldn’t have to apologize (option 3 above.) If the person has been hurt, was it completely accidental, or just because they’re oversensitive? That’s option 2, the “I’m sorry you felt hurt but I didn’t mean to.” Or did your son do or say something selfish or thoughtless which he can now see would obviously hurt. That requires a real apology (option 1).
If your son can learn to imagine what it would be like to be the other person, and can choose freely among these options, he is well on his way to moral maturity. While you discuss situations with him, it’s important not to force him to choose the option you would choose. His moral integrity involves saying what is really true for him, not giving up his judgment to please someone else, including his parents. If you allow him to speak his truth, while teaching him to think about other people, he will grow up a caring and considerate human being, even if he doesn’t always do what you would like him to do.