I bit my tongue, hard. The total stranger who had wandered through the preschool room on her way to a meeting next door got a raised eyebrow and silence from me, in response to her brusque demand. It wasn't just her tone of voice that got my back up, nor the fact that she'd taken it upon herself to start issuing orders to me without so much as introducing herself.
No, what really riled me was her complete confidence in her own take on the situation- confidence that she could just take a snapshot of what had gone amiss between two children she didn't even know, and instantly solve it by forcing one of the children to use a magic word.
Sadly, it's a common mistake. Parents and carers often fall into the trap of looking for a formula that saves them having to think all the time. We're busy. We're stressed. Analysing every single conflict situation that comes up with our children is sometimes difficult, sometimes downright impossible, given the other demands on our time and the frequency of the conflicts. We're hanging out for a short cut, a magic solution.
Siblings or peers fighting? Someone must be at fault. Therefore someone needs to apologise. If we can work out who's to blame and make that sorry happen, it's all sorted.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Let me unpack what actually happened in this particular case, and that might give you some clues on why forcing a 'sorry' is always a complete waste of time and doesn't solve a thing.
For starters, we're talking about two 4-year-old children with very specific and difficult issues. One, 'Joel', comes from a background of sustained dysfunction, including a parent 'doing time' and normalised low-level violence. The other, 'Piri', is a foster child from a background where relationships have been temporary and contact with other children has been minimal; he has difficulty communicating with and being accepted by other children.
Piri desperately wants to be included in Joel's play, and due to his poor social understanding he's been clumsily invading Joel's games all year without much clue about what's going on. He's still in Joel's face, despite the teachers gently intervening and trying to explain that you can't force someone to be your friend.
|When children don't understand how to|
enter play, they may snatch, hit, break
constructions or throw things...
Ms Know-it-all walked through the room at the exact moment that Joel belted Piri on the arm, hard enough to make him cry. Her snapshot was that Joel was to blame and must be forced to apologise.
Now, think about that for a moment. What exactly is going on here?
Is assigning blame helpful?
Will one word fix it?
Now, I am not for a moment condoning the violence. But what has happened here is a collision of complex behavioural problems which do not have short term solutions. By forcing Joel to say sorry, we're actually making the problem worse. His irritation with and resentment of Piri's behaviour increases, because he now feels misunderstood and disapproved of as well as annoyed. We have only dealt with the symptom of his discontent, not the cause.
It is not his fault that he has been taught that violence is a solution. By high-handedly forcing him to apologise for what he sees as normal behaviour, we have taught him nothing except that he is different from us and doesn't fit in with our classroom culture. That's called alienation.
We haven't made him want to fit in.
Not only that- the very attempt to force a child to say a sorry that they don't feel in their heart is a battle not worth fighting. Joel might just refuse; what are we going to do then? Alienate him further by putting him in 'time out'? This aligns him even more strongly with his dysfunctional family and their methods of resolving disputes. He then feels that he 'belongs' in the classroom community less than ever; his norms are not accepted or even discussed. He hugs his feelings of anger and disenfranchisement closer to his chest. He is even less likely to adhere to our behavioural guidelines.
Worse still, he might say the 'sorry' without feeling it, then notice that the adult stops bothering him after he says it- and file it away as a magic word that allows him the best of both worlds. He can hit first when he's angry or frustrated to release his uncomfortable feelings, and say sorry later to mollify the adults.
That is a lesson in manipulation that you don't want to teach. We all know adults who constantly apologise for their bad behaviour, then tomorrow or next week do exactly the same thing again. Where do you think that starts?
To change behaviour, we have to start from where the person is- not from where the teacher is. We do this by acknowledging the feelings behind Joel's actions and narrating what happened.
Here's the sort of script I use regularly with Joel and other children who talk with their fists- after saying "STOP!" and comforting Piri, of course.
"Piri kept taking the ball you were playing with. Then you hit him and now he's crying. Did you feel angry that he was taking the ball all the time?"
Listen to the answer and respond to it authentically before going on with your agenda.
"I understand that you would feel frustrated and angry. I would probably feel like that too if I was you. But you know, Joel, it's not okay to hit him. We've talked about that before. You have to find another way to show him you're angry. If you use words instead of using your hands, he will understand better and you won't get into trouble."
With a child like Joel who has had no modelling of this strategy, you then need to model actual phrases.
"You could put on an angry face like this (demonstrate) and say loudly 'STOP taking the ball. I don't like it.' Can you give that a try?"
If the child is receptive, it's even possibly to introduce the 'sorry' strategy.
"You can say sorry for hitting without being sorry for feeling angry. It's okay to feel angry. It would make things a bit better if you went over to Piri and said 'sorry for hitting you'. I will go and explain to Piri why you were angry, but you are the only one who can say sorry for the hitting."
That approach separates the feelings from the actions, and avoids backing an angry child into a corner; it gives him a way of conforming to social expectations without having to swallow his emotions, and it gives him agency in solving the problem.
Don't expect success the first time, but if you keep putting the strategy on the table it may just get picked up some day- and then it will be meaningful.
Ideally of course, the intervention with modelling would occur before things got out of hand. If I'd noticed Joel becoming frustrated, I would have used narration and modelling earlier and slightly differently:
"Joel, it looks like Piri is taking the ball and you don't like it. You could look at him and say 'Piri, please stop taking the ball.' "
I've used that strategy several times with complete success with Joel- he has instantly copied what I said, and the other child has responded positively and stopped the annoying behaviour. BUT it will take many, many repetitions before Joel comes up with this strategy spontaneously.
Of course, Piri needs support to change his behaviour too. He needs to have strategies to join a game modelled to him.
"Piri, you keep taking the ball that Joel is playing with. Look at his face. He looks like he's getting angry. If you want to play ball with Joel you need to ask him with words, not with your hands. You could say 'Joel, can I please play ball with you?'. He might say no, but he might say yes. You don't know till you try."
You can see that many, many more words than just a lip-service 'sorry' are needed to make any impact on these children's behaviour. But what about children who don't have these special behavioural needs?
Even children from secure, loving backgrounds will not learn a thing from a forced 'sorry', because the feelings and circumstances that sparked the misbehaviour have been ignored. Recently I worked with two very bright, well-spoken and much-loved sisters aged 5 and 6 who had a severe case of sibling rivalry. When they came to shouting or insults or blows- and they did, every day- I fell back on the same strategies that I described above.
I never asked these girls to apologise for their feelings, though sometimes it was hard to listen to the elder one say "I never wanted a sister!" and to watch the other provoke and provoke and PROVOKE her, out of a desire to be accepted. Those children are not sorry for the way they feel. That IS the way they feel right now. What they need is not censure, but understanding and acceptance of the feelings that overwhelm them- and that's what I tried to give them.
The unacceptable behaviour, of course, must be separated from the feelings. We can forbid certain responses to feelings without forcing a child to push down real emotions. The emotions must always be acknowledged if we are to change the behaviour.
|Puppets are a great way to help children talk|
about their feelings- they can act out the behaviours
and identify the emotions much more easily from
a little distance.
For example, some children do enjoy playing alone and become extremely frustrated when others try to join them; you will find this particularly amongst gifted children, whose game 'rules' may be too sophisticated for their age peers to understand, and amongst talented children (such as those with advanced sporting abilities) who may want to practise a skill without interruption (I would put Joel in this category). Those children will not be served well by a blanket rule of 'everything must be shared' and need to have some sort of refuge where they can develop their games uninterrupted. Perhaps defining a 'solo play' area and a 'shared play' area could be helpful here.
Children who say hurtful things to one another- I'm thinking of "I never wanted a sister!"- can be encouraged to describe the feeling they have and the reason for it, rather than making sweeping statements. "I'm angry because this is my birthday present and I don't want to share it!" is a much more useful statement, both for communicating a child's needs and for allowing the parent or carer to try to meet them.
That's just one example; every case of conflict is a little different and has its own subtle nuances that only the parent or the long-term carer can detect. There IS no one-word solution to conflict; a passer-by can't solve anything by forcing a formulaic apology.
It actually puzzles me that anyone thinks a forced 'sorry' works. If Israel and Palestine were forced to say 'sorry' to each other, the war would not end- we know that- because there are long-term, deep-seated emotions involved which haven't been dealt with. And we all know how difficult it is to apologise sincerely to our partner or family for shouting or saying cruel things to them, when we're still feeling angry or disappointed with them over whatever provoked our rage.
So why do we expect the forced 'sorry' strategy to work for our children?