You’ve probably said it. I know you’ve heard someone else say it. If nothing else, your parents said it to you. One child takes a toy from her brother and he hits her for snatching it. It’s a perfect opportunity to insist: “Say you’re sorry.” But he doesn’t want to. You find yourself in a tug of war with an angry, defiant toddler that you want to influence to do the right thing. Is this the best method?
I’m going to say no. It doesn’t seem right to let him get by with hitting his sister but think about the dynamics of the situation. You want to teach your son not to force his own way in a situation where he wants to play with the particular toy his sister took from him. So, you force him to make an apology he doesn’t mean just because he fears your wrath? I hope you get the irony.
There are a couple of barriers between you and that apology you hope he can come to value. The first is his anger. He was playing with it. His sister did a number on his plans. He wants to teach her not to take what someone else is playing with. He’s mad.
The second is fairness. You want to stop the violence from erupting and escalating. Hitting isn’t the proper response. All he can think about is why you would defend her right to snatch things over his right of possession in the first place. Why am I in trouble, he thinks. That’s not fair.
A parent’s response to fairness is just as important as their response to hitting. Emotions are running high and this might not be the best time to get that apology.
Teaching our children to be sorry for doing wrong is admirable. Demanding they say things they don’t mean borders on bullying. Teaching involves information given with the choice to follow or reject the advice. A good coach teaches a player to watch the ball from the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand and swing when it enters the strike zone. The choice to hit the ball remains in the decision-making power of the hitter. The new information makes more choices possible.
Why not teach that hitting is an unacceptable response to snatching toys and that both children should consider telling the other one they are sorry if they want to play together. If anger is boiling over, suggesting they think about it while separated from one another might give them time to cool down and think instead of reacting. The apology is taught but not demanded. The timing is left to the children. Whether to play together is also a choice that hopefully can become the desired option after a few minutes of cooling down.
We have learned that hitting our children isn’t always the best way to stop them from hitting others. Now it is time to consider that demanding apologies can be equally coercive. Ask for what you want. Teach why this is a better option. Leave room for obedience to come immediately or in a few minutes. If there is no response, playing alone can become the option chosen by the children.
Dr. Charles Fay from Love and Logic Parenting suggests that we let children work out their own disagreements much of the time. Hearing one tattle on another rarely gets the full story. Give options, make suggestions and let them learn from natural consequences when you can. Try not to become part of the problem with your solution.