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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

FAQ: should i make my child apologize?

Parents frequently ask me if it is wrong to require their children to apologize when they are disrespectful or disobedient. Usually, their concern is that, by doing so, 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 thing for the right reason. Godly obedience is what Christian parents want to instill in their children.

But how is godly obedience instilled? How is it trained? The answer might surprise you. Unlike adults who learn by reasoning, young children learn by doing. Adults want to be convinced that 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 or value for 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? Would it not seem unloving to leave them verbally empty-handed when facing a situation where forgiveness needs to be sought?

the liturgical child

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 the carousel. Children are wired for repetition because repetition helps them to learn.
Just as a pastor in a church that uses a liturgy each week would not assume that his congregation possessed genuine faith because they repeated the Apostles’ Creed, we parents do not assume that our child feels genuine repentance just because she has been trained to apologize. But we give her the right words trusting that the right motive will attach to them as she matures.

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. A child who sees his parents apologize with genuine remorse when they have wronged him learns quickly to do the same. Every time we apologize to our children we give them a picture of what mature, genuine 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 like that. 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 become developmentally able to link right motive to right action. They become capable of seeking forgiveness without prompting and without memorized words. An older child who has demonstrated genuine remorse in the past (and has seen it modeled by parents) 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 what the right thing to do here is. 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 to manifest. 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 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 that the Lord will use your words and your example to bring about genuine repentance in their young hearts.


  1. Thank you for giving a detailed example of how to ask forgiveness for yelling. :/ I like your writing.

  2. I'm still waiting for your parenting book. :-)

  3. I'm encouraged. I love the theme that what is good and appropriate for my 3yo may not be what my 9yo needs. I find this transitional shift the hardest in parenting. The energy, time and wisdom it takes to be fully present and aware how my kids are changing intellectually and growing in Jesus....and how it directly effects my parenting and training moments w them.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with training children in the discipline of apologizing. Many years ago I was asked to 'referee' a meeting between two adults in a disagreement. One person didn't want to apologize, because they didn't feel sorry, and thought it would be dishonest to say sorry when not really sorry. Reading your article reminded me of the importance of training a child in the discipline of courtesy, respect, etc. even when they don't "feel" it, so they will grow up with that essential skill. While one may not feel sorry, the courtesy of an apology is basic respect for another human being.