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Dr. Kirk: When Should Children Apologize?

by Michael E. Kirk, PhD
Dr. Kirk is a local clinical psychologist, father and grandfather, who specializes in working with families, adolescents, and children.

Susan smacks her brother hard on the head as she walks into the kitchen. Mother says,” Susan, you apologize to your brother this instant. I dislike that type of behavior in our house. Say you’re sorry!” Susan looks over toward her brother, glares at him and under a pretense of apologizing, says, with rolling eyes and a negative attitude, “I’mmmm Sooo Sooorrryyyy.” Mother, satisfied having observed her daughter’s counterfeit reparations being performed, returns to her earlier task. Brother glares at his sister, as his head still hurts and he does not have the same sense of a resolution as does Mother. Sister ambles out of the kitchen.

Brother later complains to Mother that “She is always hitting me and all you ever have her do is say that she’s sorry. You know that she doesn’t mean it.” Brother waits by Mother, hopefully anticipating some level of an affirmative response from her. She hesitates from her task, looks up at brother and reports, “What do you want, Teddy? She said that she is sorry. Let it go. She’s your sister.” Teddy walks off in a huff, feeling nothing is resolved with his sister’s shenanigans and as if his mother just does not get it. He grumbles, “I just keep getting hit. Let’s see how my sister likes it when I hit her next time.” Mother continues with her task believing that all is well, yet her son feels neglected, hurt, and unsettled.

Later, Teddy is destroying some art work in his sister’s room. Pieces are lying around messily on the floor. Mother happens to walk by and notice the situation. “Teddy,” she scolds,”What are you doing? Those are your sister’s favorite drawings!” She grabs Teddy by the arm and escorts him out of the room, marches him to his room, and tells him,” You stay in your room until I say otherwise. I can’t believe what you’ve done to your sister,” and she angrily walks off. Teddy remains in his room, continuing to seethe at his mother’s seeming inability to understand his frustration with her and his sister. Later, Mother chats with the local Catholic priest about how her children are not getting along, and she notes that, “Teddy seems to be getting angrier by the day.” The priest suggests that there may be more to this issue and recommends that mother consult with a local psychologist specializing in families and children. Mother does attend such an appointment later in the week and realizes that, while she thought Teddy was the problem at the house, she herself is the main contributor by allowing Sister to get away with her hurtful behaviors and disingenuous apologies to her brother. Mother walks to her car with a smile following the consultation, knowing what to do to help restore harmony to her home.

Mother is in the kitchen and brother Teddy is sitting at the table completing homework. Sister enters and, while demanding something from Mother, hits her brother forcefully on the back of his head with her book. Mother looks up, being more attentive now to the situation, and walks over to Teddy to check that he is unhurt. She suggests that he come get something to eat for a snack and returns to her earlier task. Sister, again, demands some form of action by her mother, “Can I Pleassseee get a ride over to Sandra’s house, now, MOTHER!” Mother ignores her daughter’s request, but quietly states, while continuing to focus on her present task, “IF my wonderful daughter wants a ride anywhere from her mother, she must stop hitting my wonderful son.” Sister, feigning exasperation says, “What? I didn’t hit him that hard. Come on!” Mother remains steadfast in her offered consequence, basically ignoring Sister, who finally walks off in a huff.

Eventually, as Mother continues to practice her applied behavioral consequences for her daughter, daughter begins to realize the consequences are undesirable and her problematic behaviors begin to disappear. Mother and Father plainly appear unwilling to help her out unless she behaves well within the home. Brother feels better as the program seems to have encouraged sister to cease the pummeling she often gave him. Empathy is a learned behavior, but not all catch on to it. Allowing for consequences, rather than sanctioning false apologies, allows for improvement within the family. Meaning, everyone feels better overall.

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Tags: Parenting

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