Teaching Children to Express Compassion

As many great writers have pointed out, children learn behaviors from the example their peers and parents set. Saying "please," and "thank you," and "I'm sorry" are a part of that learning process. But there's more to it than that. As parents, we know what it means to say "I'm sorry." We understand how important that process of regret can be to forming compassionate young adults. The question is: How do we explain that to our children?

Children have complex emotions, and complex understandings. What they usually lack is vocabulary to express it all. And this often leads them to feel frustrated when they can't communicate what they are feeling or thinking. That's where parents and mentors come in. We get to help our children unlock those doors to healthy self-expression. This is especially important when emotions are involved. Teaching our children to identify emotions like fear, exhaustion, regret, uncertainty, joy... It isn't often an intentional part of our parenting plan. So let's make it intentional!

At its simplest level, the emotion "I'm Sorry" means "I love you, and I don't want you to feel bad." And those two emotions are ones our children CAN identify with at a very young age. My parents took time to explain not just what I did, but also how my actions affected others, and what I could do to make it right. Every time I did something wrong.

If I yanked a toy out of my playmate's hand, they said-- "It's not okay to take toys away from other people who are playing with them. Taking the toy away from Amy made her feel sad and upset. You need to give the toy back to Amy, and tell her "I'm sorry" so she knows you don't want her to feel bad. If you want a turn playing with that toy, you can ask Amy to share the toy with you, after you say you're sorry." When the child does what you ask, reward him or her with praise, and a hug. "I'm so proud of you! I like having such a polite and loving little boy (or girl) in my home!"

We don't expect our children to make the connection right away, but we show them the right way to do things, and explain why with ideas they already understand. Then we make sure that when our children DO use good manners, they are rewarded by having a turn with the toy, and lots of praise from Mommy. "Okay, it's Danny's turn with the toy. Thank you for sharing, Amy!" Of course, a great way to really emphasize the lesson is for Mommy to make sure SHE says "I'm sorry" when she makes her child feel bad, too. Maybe Mommy throws away the last few bites of apple, thinking her child has already finished. He cries, and so she stops and says, "Honey, I'm sorry I threw the apple away. I don't want you to feel bad. I just didn't know you were still eating it. Next time, you need to stay in your chair until you are all done eating, so that I know you still want the rest of your apple."

This shows your child how an apology works, and that rules are for everyone. It also is a great example of how you can not want someone to feel bad-- you can say "I'm Sorry"-- even in situations where the rules about good behavior (not leaving the table until you're done eating) still apply. If the reason for saying "I'm Sorry" is bigger-- hitting, for example-- It's important to help your child identify the emotion that led them to hit, as part of the apology process.

"I know you're really angry right now, but it is never okay to hit someone. I  need you to use your words, so that your sister understands why you are so angry. You can say "It makes me feel bad when you take that toy away from me." But we don't hit people. I need you to go take a time out until you calm down, and when you're ready, you can come out and apologize to your sister for hitting. I'll keep this toy on the counter since neither of you can play nicely with it today."

When the child comes out of Time Out, let him or her know that it's time to go say "I'm Sorry" to his or her sister, and then come get a hug. This might be a good time for sister to say "I'm Sorry" for taking the toy away, too. Thank your child for saying "I'm Sorry" and suggest, while hugging, that next time they feel angry like that, they can come talk to Mommy or go sit in the angry chair until they can talk about the problem. Mommy doesn't want you to feel bad about the toy, either. But it is never okay to hit people.

The first few times you catch your child saying "I'm sorry" or asking to share a toy without your prompting, make a big happy deal out of it. Reward your child for being so polite and great by giving them your attention, praise, and smiles at a job well-done. Notice what they do right more often than you notice what they do wrong. Positive reinforcement is one heck of a powerful teaching tool. Especially when we want a child to do what is right because it is right, and not because they are afraid of the consequences if someone catches them doing something wrong.

Also, remember that children up to about age six or seven often tell you what they WISH was true, when you ask them what happened. A great way to help your child learn to tell the truth is by labeling non-truths as "Stories." If you can see that Jimmy didn't put away his toys, but when you ask if he did, he says "Yes," you can respond by saying, "I know you WANT your toys to be all put away, but they're still all over the floor."

Similarly, you can say, "I know you wish you didn't hit your sister, but what really happened?" Or, "That's a great story, Jimmy! I like the stories you tell me, but right now I need to know the truth-- where is Amy's binky? Did you do THIS, or did you do what you just said?" It gives your child a way to tell you the truth without being a bad kid for wishing something different had happened. It means you won't end up in quite so many struggles of will-power about whose story is right-- yours, or your child's. Because one is a good story, and one is the truth.

I bring up the power of story-telling because it feeds into a child's understanding of "I'm sorry." Part of the challenge of teaching our children to apologize is helping them to accept responsibility for their actions. Children don't want to feel bad. They don't want to be responsible for making someone else feel bad, or for disappointing Mommy. Helping them understand-- in a loving way-- that they don't always get what they want but it's okay to tell us that they want it is a huge part of helping a child acknowledge that they did something wrong, and they feel bad about it. That they wish they hadn't done it. That they are, in fact, sorry.

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