“He just shut me out and that isn’t good for the planet.” Sienna, 3 years old, upon her brother’s refusal to accept her hug
My four-year-old scratches his little sister’s face. He knows it’s wrong. Before he lashes out, he looks at me furtively with a sidelong glance, as if trying to decide what to do.
In the blink of my eye, the deed is done. Sienna is crying. I am not sure what happened, but I catch the swing of Alessio’s arm reaching back into his pocket, as if nothing had happened, as if the mark on her face was an accident.
With the masterful timing of a magician Alessio says, “Sorry, Sienna.” But it’s not sincere. It’s what he knows to do to defuse the situation, but it’s basically a lie. I wonder if he is old enough to even understand what sorry means, though he is certainly old enough to figure out just how far to go, and when to do it – in the millisecond when I am distracted by a phone call.
Between 3 and 7 years old, children begin to develop the capacity for moral understanding. Before that, children may know the words right and wrong only through their parents saying so, but not because they really get it.
They are able to follow family rules and know what normal behavior is within that framework. But they are too young to understand the complex idea that though you might want something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should act upon it. Or the even more complex idea that if you have made a mistake, it’s good to make amends deeply from your heart – not just parroting a phrase.
This is a powerful stage in child development when positive parenting really counts. What we are trying to teach through example is: We are not always right. It’s okay to make mistakes. But it’s also important to address those mistakes in loving and generous ways.
1. Don’t force your children to say “Sorry.”
It’s good they learn social skills, and a “Say you’re sorry” is necessary at times to teach them healthy bounds of behavior. But if your child refuses, rather than force an insincere apology, try another angle. Be a role model. Go to the wronged child and apologize. Use simple feeling words that children can relate to. “I’m sorry Sienna hit you. That makes me very sad.” Once things calm down, you might ask a question like, “Sienna, what could you do differently next time?”
2. Building the forgiveness muscle: Role playing/role reversal.
“How would you feel if it happened to you?” Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The age-old advice for compassion is very true, and without compassion, deep forgiveness is impossible. (And as I wrote last week, forgiveness is one of the best ways to help you live your best life.) Play helps simplify large concepts to a child. Learning works best without fear of failure. Allow mistakes and encourage right action. Role reversal can help your child better understand complex issues by creating a safe space to explore difficult emotions. It also gives them a chance to try again and succeed this time.
3. Try some inventive mediation.
Keep in mind, children’s early attempts at forgiveness or successful social behavior will be clumsy. Squabbles are rampant in the pre-school set. On the other side, toddlers are easily embarrassed and hurt, yet do not have the words to say so. If you find yourself in the middle of a stalemate, sometimes a little inventive mediation can light the way. Include both children in the conversation. “Joey, isn’t it nice that Charlie is being so strong and brave to say he forgives you? That’s what friends do. I’m so proud of both of you for working this out.” Forgiveness is a practice, a pattern that grows into habit that grows into life.
4. Age-appropriate understanding.
Children under 4 don’t really understand the moral complexities of forgiveness, but toddlers do have a natural empathy toward others. They will go over and hug a child who is crying. But they also do not yet understand that hitting someone hurts. Build on their natural empathy as they grow – but never expect them to understand what they don’t. These subjects are difficult even for adults, how much more for a child to whom the world is new.
5. Work from a positive place.
Notice the good things your children do, not just those things that don’t go right. Often the bad behavior gets more attention than the good, which can set up unwanted patterns for gaining attention through mischief. A wonderful evening exercise for the whole family, either around the dinner table or at bedtime is to ask, “Is there anyone we are keeping out of our hearts? Can we find the way to let them in?” Open this kind of conversation and you’ll be surprised at the wisdom your children have to teach you.