Raising boys to be caring, considerate and compassionate young men is one of those essential life skills that for most parents is hardwired. Just like teaching them how to tie a tie, the importance of good manners, and how to drive a car safely, the desire to see our sons respect the feelings of others and show remorse when conflict arises is powerful.
From the playground, to the sporting arena, within their personal relationships, and in the workplace, your son will be faced with situations throughout his life where he will have to respond to conflict. Sometimes he might be the offending party. Handling conflict is challenging, and research demonstrates that an apology is critical to repairing and strengthening our relationships. Knowing how to teach boys to say sorry is important and timing is everything.
Nurturing empathy in boys
A strong sense of empathy helps boys to make positive decisions that don’t hurt other people or seek approval or acceptance. Studies suggest that the development of empathy occurs during infancy, although it takes many years for this skill to develop fully and requires the adults in children’s lives to nurture and develop it. Child and adolescent psychologist, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg says, “teaching children under the age of seven or eight to say sorry (before empathy has kicked in) is like teaching a budgie to say ‘I love you’.”
According to Jean Piaget’s Stages of Development, young children (toddlers to age seven) are not able to ‘grasp more complex concepts such as cause and effect, time and comparison. Thinking is still based on intuition and not completely logical’. They don’t understand that other people have feelings – so forcing them to feel sorry is confusing.
Self-awareness and recognition of how they feel, is critical for children to show remorse and empathy. When children reach the ages of seven to 11, their thinking ‘becomes less egocentric and they are increasingly aware of external events. They begin to realise that one's own thoughts and feelings are unique and may not be shared by others or may not even be part of reality.’ At this stage, boys should be able to say sorry without being prompted, but their words should be supported by action.
Here are our top five tips for teaching boys to say sorry:
1. Model compassion and empathy
When children see their parents acting in a caring and compassionate way, it becomes part of their value set and behaviour. Help younger boys to understand how people they may have hurt are feeling by asking questions such as, “What do you think it would feel like to be left out of the game?”
2. Get a pet
According to parenting author and educator, Maggie Dent, “A good dog helps kids care. One of the very best teachers you can add to your family is a good dog.”
3. Provide encouragement
Encourage boys to genuinely express their remorse and acknowledge responsibility by saying “I’m sorry” to the person or people affected.
4. Suggest actions to make good
Explain to your son what actions would help to rectify the situation. He should be encouraged to offer to clean up the broken glass or repair or replace damaged property, for example. This action will signal genuine remorse and a willingness to facilitate the healing process.
5. Expect sincerity
We’ve all heard a non-apology, where it’s obvious the individual isn’t sincere. Encouraging your son to take responsibility for his actions will signal his commitment to resolving the conflict and repairing the relationship. With this commitment the apology should be genuine and heart-felt. If the apology seems insincere, don’t be afraid to call your son out on it and discuss the reasons why your son doesn’t feel sorry for his actions.
When former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood in parliament on 26 May 1998 and said the words “To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry”, he delivered an incredibly moving, emotive and heartfelt apology on behalf of all Australians for the mistreatment of generations of indigenous Australians. On 26 May 2017, National Sorry Day, Australians will remember, commemorate and honour the intent of that apology.
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