Chiding your kids publicly to apologize can make them less 'likable.' Here's why.

Maybe you both need a time-out.

  • A new study finds that making children apologize can make things worse.
  • When kids say fake "sorry" their victims dislike them even more.
  • Children respond most positively when regret is sincere.

"You did what? You apologize right now!

That may be the sound of a grownup making a mistake. According to new research published by the University of Michigan this year, forcing a child to apologize when they don't mean it usually does more harm than good.

"Coercing your child to apologize is going to backfire," says the study's author, Craig Smith, of the university's Center for Human Growth and Development. "Other kids don't view that apologizer as likable. The teachable element of having the child apologize has gone away and the goal of the apology prompt — to help your child express remorse, soothe someone else's hurt feelings and make your child more likable — is lost."

Ask a child

Photo credit: Alexy Trener via Shutterstock

The study asked children between the ages of 4 and 9 for their reactions to three types of apologies:

  • unprompted genuine apologies
  • prompted genuine apologies
  • coerced apologies

Tallying up the kids' responses, they found that all of the children — the 7 to 9-year-olds especially — felt worse with the apologizer after receiving a coerced apology, viewing them as not-nice people. The subjects did, however, appreciate sincere apologies, whether or not they were prompted.

Kids also picked up that the transgressor felt worse about themselves after being forced to say "sorry" — do they feel bad about their original action or about being forced to apologize? The older children felt that the forced apologizers were more concerned with themselves than with their victims, worrying about punishment and their own concerns rather than feeling regret for making their victims feel hurt.

A slower, more productive approach

Photo credit: Anastasiya Shylina via Shutterstock

Smith says that a more effective approach is to first encourage empathy for the victim of a misdeed:

Make sure the child understands why the other person feels bad, and make sure the child is really ready to say 'I'm sorry.' Then have them apologize.

It may be best to take a personal timeout before correcting the transgressor, letting the conflict cool down a bit for you both. "When your child is calm, help them see how the other person is feeling, and why. An apology is one way to do it, but there are lots of ways. Research shows that even preschoolers value it when a wrongdoer makes amends with action. Sometimes this is more powerful than words."

We should note that this isn't to say there's no value to a coerced apology, especially in situations where there's little opportunity for full conflict resolution, such as during a busy school recess. Elementary school principal Anders Hill notes that, "Even if the person is less than sincere, it is important for the person wronged: It lets them know that adults took them seriously and helps model the restorative practice."

Otherwise, where there's a chance for converting a misdeed to an opportunity for learning, the study is clear: Building empathy is likely to be a better investment of everyone's time.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

For a long time, the West shaped the world. That time is over.

The 21st century is experiencing an Asianization of politics, business, and culture.

Videos
  • Our theories about the world, even about history or the geopolitics of the present, tend to be shaped by Anglo perspectives of the Western industrial democracies, particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • The West, however, is not united. Canada, for instance, acts in many ways that are not in line with American or British policies, particularly in regard to populism. Even if it were united, though, it would not represent most of the world's population.
  • European ideas, such as parliamentary democracy and civil service, spread across the world in the 19th century. In the 20th century, American values such as entrepreneurialism went global. In the 21st century, however, what we're seeing now is an Asianization — an Asian confidence that they can determine their own political systems, their own models, and adapt to their own circumstances.
Keep reading Show less

Why modern men are losing their testosterone

Research has shown that men today have less testosterone than they used to. What's happening?

Flickr user Tom Simpson
Sex & Relationships
  • Several studies have confirmed that testosterone counts in men are lower than what they used to be just a few decades ago.
  • While most men still have perfectly healthy testosterone levels, its reduction puts men at risk for many negative health outcomes.
  • The cause of this drop in testosterone isn't entirely clear, but evidence suggests that it is a multifaceted result of modern, industrialized life.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

Videos
  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less