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How to Teach a Kid to Apologize — And Mean It

Sure, you can make your kids apologize to each other — but teaching them true forgiveness requires more than an "I'm sorry."

Megan Maloy/Getty

Making kids apologize to each other is a familiar script to any parent: “Tell Billy you’re sorry you hit him!” But anyone who has witnessed a child’s forced apology would be hard-pressed to find it meaningful. Teaching kids what it actually means to forgive someone — and to sincerely apologize to and seek forgiveness themselves — is a crucial life skill, even if it’s hard to come by. “When we talk about wanting to teach kids to forgive, it’s about wanting them to be able to successfully socially engage with others and repair relationships,” says Kelly Lynn Mulvey, Ph.D., a psychology professor at North Carolina State University.

Fortunately, there are ways adults can facilitate forgiveness — namely by helping kids develop a theory of mind, then learning how to use it. Along the way, they’ll also learn the key to making their own sincere apologies, because you can’t give a good apology without understanding forgiveness.

Theory of Mind and the Key to Forgiveness

Before kids can learn forgiveness, they need to be able to think introspectively about their own mental state and be able to consider the mental state of others. Combined, these abilities are called theory of mind. One example of using theory of mind would be understanding that people can have differing views about the same situation; Jessie might be happy that it’s time to do arts and crafts even if you don’t like drawing. A developed theory of mind allows people to infer what someone else is thinking based on what they say and how they act. 

In a new study, the researchers found that a developed theory of mind is linked to a child’s level of behavioral forgiveness, or acting like they forgive someone, rather than just saying that they do. “You might say that you’re going to forgive someone, but if you don’t then treat them in a way that expresses that forgiveness, then it’s inauthentic,” Mulvey says.

The researchers evaluated these concepts by first asking children if they would forgive a hypothetical transgressor and followed up by asking if the children would then be willing to play with that person. When kids were questioned about their reasoning, those who could more intuitively deduce what the person who wronged them was thinking or feeling were more likely to demonstrate forgiveness. 

Theory of mind is essential beyond teaching kids how to forgive. The skillset is foundational for helping adults get along with teammates, coworkers, family members, and strangers.

Although theory of mind develops throughout the whole lifespan, adults can do things to help children build a good foundation. Parents should encourage their kids to identify and evaluate multiple perspectives. “If you’re reading a storybook, asking what characters might have been thinking or what their motivations may have been can build social skills that are going to be important for all of their interactions,” Mulvey says.

Finding Similarities With Others Helps Kids Learn to Forgive

For another step in the study, the researchers sorted kids into arbitrary color-based groups: yellow and green. They then presented the kids with theoretical situations where interviewers asked study participants whether they were willing to forgive a group that left them out of a game or activity. Somewhat predictably, researchers found that in these situations, kids were more likely to forgive ingroup members of their color group than outgroup members.

“Humans affiliate with groups quickly and in many different settings,” Mulvey says. “That shared identity is really important.” When people don’t have apparent commonalities, shared identity is critical to relationship building. It’s the reason you might find two people who would never hang out with each other hugging at a college football game when their school scores a touchdown. In that moment, their shared affiliation as supporters of good old State U. trumps any differences they may have.

The challenge for adults who are helping children learn to forgive is to foster inclusive attitudes so kids have an expanded view of who is part of their ingroup. Highlighting common interests, even those that adults may find trivial such as favorite video games or books, may not help kids become best friends. But those realizations can help them develop connections that facilitate forgiveness.

“While we experimentally manipulated group status for this particular study, in practice, teachers and parents can help kids to get along and build relationships with people who are different by encouraging them to see the places where they are similar,” Mulvey says. “We can help them to build bonds so that they see each other as ingroup members while also acknowledging that in some ways they’re different.”

Scaffolding Helps Kids Learn Sincere Apologies and Forgiveness

Modeling and scripting sincere apologies are the first steps of teaching forgiveness. But although these actions are helpful in calming an argument and opening the door for diplomacy, they’re surface-level solutions. They have little effect on how a child feels after they’ve been aggrieved.

“Beyond strongly urging kids to give or accept an apology, teaching authentic forgiveness requires encouraging kids to have conversations with each other and share what happened,” Mulvey says. “Both children should share their perception of what happened during the conflict, as well as what each of them is feeling.”

Adults may need to go beyond laying the groundwork for these conversations by moderating and demonstrating calming strategies such as deep breathing and repeating or rephrasing what each child says throughout the conversation. In addition, modeling active listening skills help kids acquire the building blocks for a healthy theory of mind and increase the positive takeaways from the interaction.

Scaffolding the practice of perspective-taking by either summarizing or postulating what someone else is feeling increases the chance that the child will offer forgiveness. “Certainly, it is the case that if the transgressor apologizes, the victim is more likely to forgive them,” Mulvey says. “But having an apology that’s rooted in really understanding where that person came from and what they were thinking is going to lead to better reparations and a better kind of reconciliation of the relationship.”

Kids are always going to argue. But that means they will have plenty of opportunities to practice forgiveness and sincerely apologizing. And we will all be better off in the long run if they’re skilled at reconciliation and relationship repair by the time they’re adults.