Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Autonomous & Authentic apologies

Teaching a child to say sorry is not the same thing as forcing them to do so.

When a parent frames saying sorry as a part of a punishment, children come to see an apology as nothing more than admittance of guilt.

An authentic apology is always more than that because sorry isn't just a word - it's a feeling. And because feelings can't be mandated by authority, we have to find an alternative to dictating.

So how do we teach kids to say they are sorry and mean it? After all, I want my daughter and students to learn how to make and deliver an authentic apology. This is too important to just leave to the kids to figure out on their own.

In his book Why We Do What We Do, Edward Deci addresses some of this:

Most people seem to think that the most effective motivation comes from outside the person, that is something one skillful person does to another. There are numerous prototypes. Think for example of the locker-room speech where the coach, through the power of his gifted tongue, coddles and urges, shames and exhorts, and in so doing turns wimps into champs. Or think of the orderly classroom where the concerned teacher, through the cunning use of rewards and punishments, turns little beasts into compliant learners. 
To the contrary, however, all the work that Ryan and I have done indicates that self-motivation, rather than external motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change. External cunning or pressure (and their internalized counterparts) can sometimes bring about compliance, but with compliance come various negative consequences, including the urge to defy. Because neither compliance nor defiance exemplifies autonomy and authenticity, we have continuously had to confront an extremely important - seemingly paradoxical - question: How can people in on-up positions, such as health care providers or teachers, motivate others, such as patients or students, who are in one-down positions, if the most powerful motivation, leading to the most responsible behavior, must come from within - if it must be internal to the self of the people in the one-down positions? 
In fact, the answer to this important question can be provided only when the question is reformulated. The proper question is not, "how can people motivate others?" but rather, "how can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?"
If we can recognize that we not only can't make kids apologize but that we shouldn't even try to make them do so, then we have to reframe the question from "how do I make my kid apologize?" to something like "how do I create the conditions within my kid so that they will want to apologize on their own?"

Suddenly towering over a kid while wagging your finger and ordering "You say you're sorry right now!" seems awfully foolish.

Apologizing needs to feel like empathy, not guilt and retribution. Saying sorry is less about the person saying it and more about the person hearing it. We need to create an environment where kids feel like apologizing is less about admitting guilt or fulfilling a punishment and more about caring and feeling for others.

So how do we do this?

Modelling how to apologize might be one of the most powerful and influential things we can do. A child who never sees their parents or teacher apologize is likely to see an apology as a sign of weakness - that is, something you should avoid.

When I am working with a child who has wronged another, I often ask them "How can you make this right?" or "How can you show them that you care?"

I need to be patient with their response because they often need time to think, however, kids will often mention that they should apologize. Ultimately, I think we all want our children to apologize autonomously and authentically, and in order to do this, kids need to feel like the decision to apologize is their decision.


  1. Well said , Joe. Making a child say sorry is one of the easiest and most ineffective things we can do to a child. I always discuss with kids that there are 3 things that need to happen to solve a problem: 1. Discuss and admit the problem on their own terms. 2. Apologize but not in the presence of me and again, on their own terms. 3. Make it right - have the child come up with a solution that will require action to solve the problem. Saying sorry is so easy. Actually meaning it, saying it on your own terms and then creating action to solve the problem is the tough part.

  2. Great post - here http://tiny.cc/a5b2u
    1 I recommend the apology comes at the end of the problem solving process, once the kid has a vision of the future , the type of person he wants to be - the apology will be sincere and the kid's self esteem intact
    2 character education should be about ' relatedness' and not about doing good deeds


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