It’s better to appeal to a child’s honor than to force an insincere apology

“Tell your sister you’re sorry.”

“Apologize to Evan for breaking his pencil.”

Regardless of the setting — either at home or in the classroom — the only guarantee I could count on is that the resulting apology would be halfhearted and insincere. Furthermore, it would never lead to what I really wanted: a change in behavior.

For 34 years I taught in public schools. During eleven of those years, I co-parented my partner’s children from his previous marriage.

In neither of those scenarios did I ever ask a child to commit a lie by saying that he was sorry for something he did. He sorry! Why make him say something the he most assuredly did not mean?

We talked about feelings. We talked about doing things differently. We talked about respecting each other. Nothing seemed to make the impact I was shooting for, until about five years prior to my retirement from teaching. That was when I came up with something that brought us closer to having the changed behavior that I was looking for.

I called it .

I used a standard binder with several sheets of loose-leaf paper inside it.

I trotted out after we had a discussion about what a more desirable behavior might look like. We would try to come together to make a short statement, depending as much as possible on the words of the child making the agreement:

“I agree not to hit Elizabeth.”

“I agree not to break pencils.”

“I agree to treat Brandon with respect.”

If the child could write it himself, that’s what he did. If the child didn’t have that skill yet, I would write the words she said; she would sign her name to the statement she had dictated to me.

In subsequent altercations that treaded in similar territory, all I would need to do was retrieve and look for the statement that the child had previously made.

I wasn’t looking to shame the child. My goal was to appeal to her honor. I could say something like this: “It says here that on October 13th, you agreed not to break any pencils. Do you still agree? Because if you don’t agree to that any more, we can take that out of the book.”

I tried, as much as possible, to make comparisons to my own behavior, of which I was always aware that I was serving as an example:

“Remember when I said we would have popcorn after we straightened up the classroom last Friday, before the weekend? And then, after we straightened up the room, we had the popcorn? I made the class an agreement that we would do something, so it was my responsibility to honor my agreement. And I did it. That’s what I am asking you to do.”

Children look to adults for cues to their behavior, both positive and negative. I observed that whether I was doing this on a small scale with two children at home or on a larger scale with up to twenty first-graders in my classroom, I was able to achieve a greater amount of success by appealing to their honor than by demanding them to make apologies that we all knew they did not mean.

Retired teacher (San Francisco, 1969–2003); Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Mauritania, 2003–2005); public speaker, artist, writer, world citizen & traveler

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