The Forced Apology: Keep it or Leave it?

You know what The Forced Apology is, right? Kid does something inappropriate, conversation with parent follows, kid should correct the wrong or repair the relationship. So what about it? Should parents force their children to make apologies? I’ve long thought this a tricky question, so I’ll attempt to unpack the pros and cons here.

First, the pros.

The fundamental benefit of forcing a child to apologize (for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that parents always have the ability to force a child to do things) is that the child comes to understand that reconciliation is a necessary function of human relationships. As human beings, we make mistakes. We hurt feelings. We miscommunicate expectations and wishes. We offend others with insensitive comments and careless actions. When these conflicts occur – especially in the contexts of marriage and family – relationships must be restored. Full restoration often requires making some form of amends, and it always includes an admission of wrongdoing.

Our children need to understand what social and emotional health looks like. In a healthy family, we don’t just get upset with each other, sulk for a while, and then try to move on as if nothing happened. We don’t sweep problems under the rug and hope they go away. And we also don’t try to manipulate conflicts away by pacifying the victim with some form of unusual generosity. Instead, we address issues. We name our problems. We own our stuff. We make things right, because we our relationships with other people are worth it.

That brings us to the second benefit of The Forced Apology. Our children learn what a proper apology sounds like. We’re all familiar with fake apologies – apologies filled with qualifiers that manage to maintain a level of innocence:

  • “I apologize if anyone was offended by my words yesterday”
  • “I’m sorry you felt hurt by what I did earlier.”
  • “I regret some of the things I did after drinking too much.”

All of these statements cleverly shift blame away from the self. They imply that the word or action in question wasn’t actually offensive, or that if it was, there were contextual factors that excuse it. That’s not an admission of wrongdoing. Not even close.

A proper apology admits the offense, names the transgression, expresses regret, and asks for forgiveness. Zero explanations, excuses, or justifications are offered. The proper apology takes humility and courage, but it’s the purest and most effective way to restore relationship. Our children desperately need to learn this lesson.

We’ve all met people in our lives who – blinded by arrogance and insecurities – appear virtually incapable of making a proper apology. Ever. To anyone. We don’t want our children to become those people. The Forced Apology teaches our children that reconciliation is essential, and it must be done right.

The Cons.

There are some risks associated with The Forced Apology. Since parents can’t create remorse or regret in the heart of a child, there is an obvious possibility of insincerity. The child might make the apology half-heartedly merely to gain parental approval, escape the spotlight’s glare, relieve themselves of a parent-imposed consequence, or simply move on. Compliance may not equal contrition. Also present is the risk that over time, and if not handled properly, repeated forced apologies can create accumulating resentment. The whole ordeal can become nothing more than a silly charade or an elaborate battle of wills. These possibilities are real and must be accounted for.

The Cost of NOT Apologizing.

With the risk of insincerity in mind, should parents make apologies optional? Is it the wisest strategy to tell the child “You should apologize, but do so if and when you’re sincere and ready” and then leave it at that? I don’t think so.

Allowing the child to postpone an apology indefinitely undoes the lessons of the apology. It suggests that apologies are not really integral to healthy human relationships. It suggests that reconciliation and restoration are not important. The child misses opportunities to learn what reconciliation can and should look like. And they may even be allowed to acquire a certain comfort with their offenses.

It’s not a good situation. It’s not healthy for family life. And it doesn’t build the character and life skills that our children will need as adults.

The Conclusion.

Even if it’s not wholly intrinsic and utterly sincere, our children must take action to restore broken relationships. They must make amends. They must right wrongs. To accomplish these things, they must learn the importance of the apology, and they must be shown what a proper apology looks like.

My conclusion: Yes, children must sometimes be forced to apologize.

Best Practices.

Here are a few thoughts about how to do The Forced Apology well:

  1. Give it some time. No, don’t allow the child to postpone the apology indefinitely. But don’t require them to apologize instantly, either. Depending on the nature of the issue, you might need to give them – and perhaps yourself – some time to cool down before talking things over. Hopefully, just hopefully, some quiet time of reflection will allow the child to process the offense to the point where they genuinely desire to reconcile and offer a legitimate apology.
  2. Let them write their own script. Application will vary widely with age and maturity of the child, but I’m not a fan of spoon feeding an apology line by line. The Forced Apology feels a lot more authentic when it’s framed in the child’s own words. No, they may not nail it perfectly. But they’re on their way to owning the problem. Again, this is about building life skills necessary for adulthood. They’ve got lots of years to perfect the art of apology.
  3. Choose the time and place. When it’s the right time to reconcile, make sure the stage is set as well as possible. You control the variables: no visible audience, no screens in sight, no competing distractions. This is an important experience in the life of the family, so take the time to thoughtfully control the environment. You can’t control your child’s heart, but you sure can make sure the TV is off.
  4. Accept the apology. The one receiving the apology has an active part to play in terms of completing the reconciliation. Express gratefulness, offer forgiveness, and affirm the core relationship. Resist temptations to praise the child with shallow platitudes like “Well, I know you’re a good boy.” Instead, stick to the basics. “Thank-you for that apology. Absolutely, I completely forgive you. I love you, son.” Something physical like a hug or even a fist-bump helps to cement the reconciliation in a visceral way, too.

That’s my take. Does The Forced Apology happen in your home? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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