2009-04-09 / Local & State

Teaching Kids To Say "I'm Sorry'' Needs No Apology

By Kellie B. Gormly

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Morgan kids - Jack, 8; Ava, 5; and Abby, 4 - of Forest Hills know what they need to do when they have made a mistake that harms someone.

"They know that when they have hurt someone or have done something wrong, they just know that they have to apologize and make amends for it, and mean it,'' says Holly Morgan, 40. She and her husband, Eric, say they emphasize respect and empathy with their children.

"The golden rule is you want to treat somebody else the way you want to be treated,'' Holly Morgan says she tells her kids.

When so many adults are lousy at sincerely apologizing - or never do the "mea culpa'' thing at all - it's hard for kids to learn how to acknowledge and correct a wrong and make things right with a person they have hurt, experts say. Far too many adults serve as poor role models. Think about the politicians, sports stars and other high-profile people who publicly give the insulting non-apology, "I'm sorry if anyone found my comments offensive,'' for instance. Such nonapologies take no responsibility for a wrong and express no remorse: They actually blame the injured person for his or her reaction, experts say.

Whitney Lynne Fry, a counselor for student affairs at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, says that being a humble person and apologizing regularly are the best ways to teach kids the same values and skills. Repentant adults set good examples and raise repentant kids, who are more likely to turn into adults who can apologize effectively, rather than pride-filled people who are unconcerned about how their actions affect others.

"Foremost, I think it's important to lead by example if you're a parent,'' Fry says. She has a lot of experience with children, including running counseling groups for children with special needs.

"It's just as vital for parents to say 'I'm sorry,''' Fry says. "All children model who they see ... By the time they reach adulthood, we hope that they understand this.''

Parents need to be willing to apologize for their mistakes not only to their children, but to their spouse, and other people in their life, Fry says, in order to be an example of good behavior.

Chicago-area author and psychotherapist Aaron Cooper agrees.

"The example we set is what we're going to teach,'' Cooper says. He is the author of "I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy! Why You Shouldn't Say It, Why You Shouldn't Think It, What You Should Embrace Instead.'' "If we do not apologize to our children, they're not going to learn from us how to apologize.

"So many adults operate with the belief that an adult should not need to apologize to a child. It may feel like it undermines their authority,'' Cooper says. "It actually enhances their credibility as a teacher. (Kids) know it's just part of being human to do that.''

Teaching kids to apologize requires more than teaching them to say the magic "I'm sorry'' words, Fry and Cooper say; the children also need to take responsibility for their actions. If they throw food on the floor, for instance, they shouldn't just apologize, they should clean up the mess.

"A lot of people will just say 'I'm sorry,' and not really mean it and not really do anything,'' Fry says.

Cooper says that learning to apologize is a fundamental skill that helps to teach children empathy, and prepares them for successful relationships in life. Making mistakes is inevitable, he says, but failing to apologize for them can hurt someone and damage a relationship irreparably.

"Teaching our kids the importance of apologies is one way we teach an even bigger skill: perspective-taking,'' Cooper says. "That's the skill that we want to teach to children - what it feels like to be in someone else's shoes.''

Kathleen Ceroni, a retired high-school teacher from Mt. Pleasant, says she has learned as a teacher and mother how important it is to apologize to and around youngsters, if she expects them to do the same.

"I'm struck by how difficult it is with some people...to say, 'Hey, wait a minute. OK, you know what, I made a mistake,''' says Ceroni, 57. "It's been normalized not to apologize, no doubt about it...I don't think kids hear enough people in positions of authority admitting to being wrong and saying, 'Look, I'm sorry.'''

Her son - Andrew, 16 - has learned how to apologize effectively, and doesn't need to be asked; he self-corrects, Ceroni says.

"I think there's power in teaching kids to apologize,'' she says. "I think that when kids are able to acknowledge that they made a mistake, their potential for growth multiplies tremendously. Apologies can be very liberating.''

In her preschool class, Melissa Laughery's students know what to do if they offend a classmate: they color in and personalize a printout with drawings of hands, write that they are sorry, and give the picture to the peer.

"I ask the children how God wants us to treat one another, and tell them to treat others the way we would like to be treated,'' says Laughery, of Tarentum. She teaches at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament School in Natrona Heights, and promotes the slogan "Helping Hands, not Hurting Hands.''

With Laughery's own kids - twins Niah and Neve, 11 - she discusses situations needing apologies from the other person's perspective. She asks them, "How would you like that?'' and "How would you feel if that same thing happened to you?''

"They get pretty emotional about it,'' Laughery says.

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