This never works as a parent. We can’t tell someone to do the action that represents the feeling we want them to develop.
I went out on a walk a few days ago, and overhead a scuffle between a couple small children. One of them started crying, and then the dad noticed. He yelled out, “Tell him sorry right now!” I had to chuckle to myself as I continued walking. I completely understood the dad, and how easy it is to say something so unhelpful and asinine.
Most likely, the dad wanted the offending child to actually be sorry. He wanted the child to learn that what he had done was not acceptable, and to feel remorse. If the child had actually felt remorse, an apology would have naturally followed. As parents, we recognize how silly it is to tell our children, “Feel sorry for what you just did.” It is so much easier to focus on the action rather than the feeling, and so that is where our parenting focuses.
This is similar in many ways to the phenomenon I noticed a few weeks ago, and wrote about in Living with incompetence. We often settle for focusing on what is easier to measure, and leave aside the more important, but more amorphous, root cause.
When we fall into this trap as parents, we teach our children the same behavior. They grow up learning that recognizing and feeling remorse for injuring someone else is not important, but rather the outward expression of those feelings. We don’t need to feel a certain way—we just have to act a certain way, and then we will be acceptable.
A better approach to this kind of situation is to stop any violence and then redirect our children’s attention to more positive actions. We ignore the inappropriate behavior as much as possible, and look for opportunities to reinforce positive behavior. Then later, we can have a discussion with the child when emotions have calmed. We can explain why the behavior was wrong, and the impact it has on other people. We don’t need to teach our children to feel remorse; instead we teach them empathy, and when they injure another, the remorse naturally follows.
In my opinion, one of the biggest problems attacking society, and especially our children, today is a lack of empathy. We have become utterly self-absorbed, and all events and actions are viewed in relation to their impact on us. We have lost the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see how our behavior and actions might be affecting them.
We must first master this skill in our own lives. We have to be self-aware enough to get outside of ourselves and care more about other people. As we develop and model this behavior, we become capable of passing it on to others, especially our children. As a result, the world will be a much better place.