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Teach children to say ‘sorry’: why the word is only the first step

A debate over whether children should be forced to say ‘sorry’ misses the point. Child image from

Lawyers have conniptions whenever they hear it, Parliamentarians routinely avoid using it, and all over the world, people have arguments about who should say it first.

The latest grumblings about the humble “sorry” relates to children.

Earlier this week, the advocacy group Early Childhood Australia wondered aloud on their Facebook page whether children who do something naughty, such as hurt another child, should be required to say sorry, even though they may not understand what the word means.

The electronic reaction was swift and furious with combatants from both ends of the spectrum lining up their keyboards for attack. The spat attracted column inches in broadsheet newspapers around Australia, with almost everyone having an opinion on whether children should be made to say sorry for their misdeeds.

In one corner, there was a vocal group that included prominent child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, who believed that the word sorry had lost its meaning, and that children – the cheeky little rascals – will say sorry just to satisfy an adult’s expectations without them actually feeling any sorrow.

In the other corner, there was the traditionalists, who argued that apologising holds an intrinsic value, and that whether the child knew it or not, an enforced “sorry” helped teach them that their actions have consequences.

Fingers were sharpened as the back and forth between the two camps rose from simmering to seething, each unwilling to give ground to the other. The word “sorry” had again become the source of unusual tension.

Of all the storms in all the teacups, this quarrel has to be among the greatest.

To me, this debate is a perfect example of a more general problem afflicting the parenting community: over analysis by experts.

Parenting is a tough gig. Sleepless nights, followed by tiring days, followed by the same thing again. Do we really need to make a national issue out of what, for all intents and purposes, falls into the category of common sense?

But back to the issue of children saying sorry. Common sense tells me that both camps are right.

There are few duties more important in this world than being a parent. To nurture a baby from day dot and to see them through the highs and lows of their lives is very close to the essence of our existence.

Despite the headlines, the aim of child rearing is not to raise a doctor, a lawyer, a stockbroker, or even a UN peace-keeper. The aim of child rearing is to raise a kind, contributing and aware human being.

The teaching of right from wrong is an important stepping-stone to children achieving these goals. However, the very nature of the human condition means that all of us will make mistakes. For this reason, it is perhaps even more important that we teach children how to act when they don’t live up to the standards we set.

The word “sorry” is the most immediate way that one person can convey remorse to another for their actions. Teaching children to say sorry is not just a good idea, it is necessary to raising human beings who will thrive in society.

Necessary, that is, but not sufficient. Words have to be backed up with action. Just as an “I love you” is meaningless without genuine love, a “sorry” is meaningless without genuine remorse. Teaching children that “sorry” is only the first step in repairing their mistakes, and that this word needs to be followed by acts of remorse – the cleaning up of a spilt drink or the passing of a tissue to a hurt child - will go a long way to raising happy and caring kids.

More generally, perhaps it’s time that experts back off a bit on the need to provide parents with advice. The procession of “parenting shoulds” that get discussed ad nauseum in the newspapers and on the airwaves must be pure torture to an already anxious and sleep-deprived brain. Parents are always the expert of their own child, as nobody knows that little person better than them.

If parents and early childhood educators always keep in mind the long-game of child rearing – raising a kind, contributing and aware human being – then they will always know better than anyone else.

Read Andrew Whitehouse’s column: From placenta to play centre here.

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