THE BLOG
07/08/2013 05:18 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2013

Don't Force Kids to Say They're Sorry

Squabbles between children are common. In some cases, these conflicts lead to physical contact where one child pushes or hits the other. If parents witness the altercation, they usually ask the aggressor to say he's sorry.

This is the right thing to do because adults are supposed to teach children how to behave, especially in social circumstances. However, most parents have been in the situation where one child refuses to say he's sorry to the other. What should you do then, particularly if your child was the one who did the hitting?

Not only are you likely to be embarrassed if this happens, but you may also feel a strong impulse to force your child to apologize. Encouraging kids to say they're sorry makes sense. Forcing them does not.

In some cases, parents will threaten to take away TV, dessert or other privileges if the child refuses to say he's sorry. While this might get the child to apologize, it is just as likely to provoke him to stand his ground. In some cases, he might even start to cry because he doesn't understand what you're trying to accomplish.

Although I understand why a parent would push her child to say he's sorry, if it's not a sincere apology, I'm not sure anything will be gained by forcing the issue. My recommendation, in this situation, is to model appropriate behavior instead of turning it into a showdown. Make eye contact with the victim and say something like this: "I'm so sorry, Henry. We don't allow hitting in our house. I don't know why Charlie did that to you." You should ignore your child for a moment while you make sure that Henry is feeling better.

Children learn by experiencing the consequences of their actions. In the above example, you ignored your child and gave positive attention to the one who was mistreated. If your child engages in this type of behavior repeatedly, you should warn him that he will have to leave the park (or wherever you are) if it happens again. It's best to pair consequences with the action they are designed to discourage. For example, it's more effective to go home (and stop the fun activity) rather than taking away dessert later that day.

In some circumstances, you may not be able to go home. In that instance, you could put your child in time-out. If you can't supervise a time-out session while you're out and about, tell your child that he will have a time-out as soon as you get home. (This doesn't work with children under four.)

Admonishing children for being aggressive is only half the battle. For the next five minutes, you should watch your child like a hawk so you can give him positive attention for appropriate behavior. If he is playing nicely with his friend or simply engaged in gentle parallel play, give him a big smile and say, "Mommy likes it when you play nicely with your friends." Rewarding appropriate behavior is more effective than punishment for teaching children how to behave. Psychologists call this, "catching them being good."