Parents frequently ask me if it is wrong to require their children to apologize when they are disrespectful or disobedient. Usually, they're concerned that they might be training their child to lie. Wouldn't it be better to wait for the child to apologize on his own when he feels genuine remorse, rather than to just repeat an apology he has been taught?
It is definitely commendable to want your child to speak and act only out of right motives. And yes, godly obedience goes beyond just saying the right words; godly obedience is right actions plus right motives, doing the right things for the right reasons.
But how is godly obedience instilled? How is it trained? The answer might surprise you. Unlike adults who typically learn by reasoning, young children learn by doing. Adults must usually be convinced a course of action is the correct one before they will pursue it. Children, on the other hand, learn to perform the correct action before they are developmentally able to assess the reason it is correct. Doing the right thing actually precedes understanding why it should be done.
Parents intuitively understand and employ this "training truth" with young children in many areas:
- We train them in the language of courtesy before they desire to be courteous (please/excuse me).
- We train them in the language of gratitude before they desire to be grateful (thank you).
- We train them in the language of respect before they desire to be respectful (ma'am, sir, Mrs., Mr.).
- We train them in the language of prayer before they desire to pray ("God is great, God is good," the Lord's Prayer).
In short, we teach our children the language they need to interact with others well before they have any real concept of why such language is necessary and good.
Because of this, I would answer the question "Should I require my child to apologize?" with an emphatic "Yes." If we faithfully equip our children with the language of courtesy, gratitude, respect, and prayer, why would we not also equip them with the language of forgiveness? Is it not equally important for them to know? How would training them to apologize encourage them to lie any more than training them to say "thank you" before they are truly thankful? Isn't it unloving to leave them verbally empty-handed when facing a situation where forgiveness needs to be sought?
Children are wonderfully liturgical creatures: they love repetition. This accounts for their ability to enjoy the same book or video over and over again, their attachment to a bedtime ritual or a particular pair of socks, their tendency to shout "again, again!" when they ride a carousel. Children are wired for repetition because repetition helps them learn.
A pastor wouldn't assume his congregation possesses genuine faith because they repeat the Apostles' Creed each week. And we parents don't assume our child feels genuine repentance just because she has been trained to say "I'm sorry." Still, we give them the right words, trusting the right motives will come as they mature.
Just as the congregation needs to witness their pastor live out the truths of the liturgy as he ministers to them, so our children need to witness us live out the truth of the language we teach to them. Children who see their parents genuinely and remorsefully apologize when they have been wronged learn quickly to do the same. Every time we apologize to our children we give them a picture of what mature, God-honoring apologies sound like: "I am so sorry I hurt you with my words. If I were you I would have felt so scared and sad that Mom yelled. It isn't right for me to speak to you that way. You are precious to me. I love you so much, and I don't want to do that again. I didn't honor God, and I didn't honor you. I'm praying God will help me to stop. Can you forgive me?"
Older Children and Apologies
Should we require older children to apologize? As our children grow, they learn to link right motive to right action. They become capable of seeking forgiveness without prompting or memorized words. An older child who has demonstrated genuine remorse in the past (and has seen it modeled) is probably ready for a different approach when an apology is needed.
- "That was a big outburst. What do you think needs to happen next?" ["I need to apologize."] "Yes. Would you like to do that now, or do you need a few minutes to think about what you want to say?"
- "I think you know the right thing to do. I am praying the Holy Spirit will show you your need for forgiveness. We're ready to talk to you when you're ready."
- "You should apologize to your mom. Why don't you take some time to think about what you want to say, and when you're ready, come tell her how you feel about what happened?"
And then, yes, wait for genuine repentance. If it is slow to appear, you may need additional conversations about how unforgiveness harms relationships, and you may need consequences to drive home the point. But a child who knows the security of having a parent who quickly repents and forgives will typically run to do the same.
So, yes, require an apology from your young child. Don't let the fear of raising a liar keep you from training your children in the liturgy of repentance. Model what godly repentance looks like for them, train them faithfully in the language of forgiveness, and pray the Lord uses your words and example to bring about genuine repentance in their young hearts.