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Should I force my child to apologize?

Experts weigh in on whether we should ask our kids to say "I'm sorry" when they may not actually feel that way.

At this time of year with all the holiday events, family celebrations, and a week of school vacation, it seems predestined that if there are kids - there will be fights.

Let's face it. No matter how sweet or kind a child may usually be, spending all this time together in close quarters, plus the super-charged energy created in anticipation of gifts, often brings out the worst in kids.

Parents are stressed themselves, with extra holiday chores, expenses, and kids at home 24 hours a day. So it makes sense parents are looking for the fastest most effective way to resolve the conflict and be done with it.

And what do most parents do when one child calls another a mean name, won't share a toy, or goes as far as punching? Our natural response is to do what moms and dads have been doing for centuries; forcing the "offender" to tell the "victim" he or she is sorry.  It's to the point and a quick fix.

Or is it?

Not according to the experts. Laura Markham, PhD, a child psychologist who wrote the book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends For Life, feels such forced apologies are doing more harm than good. It's because children will be the first to tell you that the practice seems meaningless:

"When I'm mad, I hate apologizing. It just makes me madder."

"It's lying to apologize when you don't mean it."

Markham told Yahoo Parenting, forcing the words "I'm sorry" not only teaches the wrong lessons, but it doesn't actually solve the problem. "Decades of research on romantic relationships show that when one person in the couple feels forced to apologize before he or she is ready, it doesn't help repair the relationship at all…We believe the same is true for children when it comes to friends and siblings."

I'm not so sure that's true.

While I agree forcing romantically involved adults to apologize may not make sense, children are just learning how to build healthy relationships. As parents, it's our job to help guide them through this often very difficult learning curve.

They need to understand why hitting isn't the answer and that hateful words can often cause longer lasting pain and damage. So what to do instead of forcing an, "I'm sorry?" Use the conflict as a learning opportunity. Teach your children how to resolve the issue peacefully.

Next time your kids are at war, prepare yourself to spend the next 30 minutes:

  1. Setting the stage for win-win outcomes – Asking for all sides of the story.

  2. Having children state their own needs and concerns – Asking each child what they want or what they are most concerned about.

  3. Helping children listen to each other and understanding the other child's needs and concerns.

  4. Helping children think of different ways to solve the problem – What are all of the possible solutions? Younger children may need some adult help with this and may be confused by lots of options, so keep it simple.

  5. Building win-win solutions – Helping children choose a solution that's fair to everyone from the options they have come up with.

And you know what? This also works for those adult romantic relationships Markham mentions. But does this mean you should never "force" your kids to say, "I'm sorry"?

It seems that most of us still think saying, "I'm sorry" is very important. A teacher I spoke with who takes the conflict resolution process very seriously, also asks the offending student to look the injured child directly in the face, not down on the ground, and say, "I'm sorry."

And apparently so does most of the morning crew on the Today Show. In a story about Markham's  "I'm sorry" ban, Carson Daly said, "I think it should be on a one-on-one basis." He added that his 3-year-old child didn't get the meaning of those words but his 6-year-old did.

Natalie Morales went even further, stating that she disagreed with Markham's belief that the offender shouldn't be "shamed" into apologizing. That if the act was wrong and egregious enough, they should feel "a little shame."

This very well may be a case of parents knowing more than the experts. After all, who is more "expert" at knowing their kids than you? So perhaps, the answer may involve saying sorry in some cases along with guidance on conflict resolution.

For more information on Markham and conflict resolution please check out the following:

Kids in the House: Laura Markham, PhD Why forcing kids to say 'I'm sorry' may be sending the wrong message

KidsMatter: Helping children resolve conflict

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