What do you do when your kid, after some egregious wrong, flat out refuses to say he's sorry?
Jamal to his father:
"But Dante started it. He on purpose messed up my Pokemon cards."
"Jamal, he's younger and littler than you. You may not hit him. You need to say you're sorry."
"But I'm not sorry. He's a little brat and gets away with everything. You don't know."
"Jamal, maybe you need to be in your room until you decide that you need to apologize to your brother."
"But he deserved it."
What can you do to get a child who has done wrong to truly accept his guilt? How can you get him to say he's sorry? For one, maybe the importance of his saying he's sorry is somehow missing the point.
We equate saying you're sorry with an official acceptance of guilt. That somehow saying you're sorry moves you from not being sorry to actually feeling remorse. But that's not the way it works. Maybe saying you're sorry is a bit overrated.
What not to do
Don't get carried away with trying to make him say he's sorry.
"Okay mister, we'll see what it takes to make you say you're sorry."
All that ever does is make him more resentful.
"I get blamed for everything. It's not fair."
If anything, it works against what you are trying to accomplish.
Maybe he will say he's sorry and maybe he won't. But that rarely has anything to do with whether he's sorry or not.
What to do
If you want him to truly feel remorse over what he has done, there are simple steps that you can take.
Say that you think he has done wrong.
"Jamal, you cannot hit your little brother."
Say why it is wrong.
"He's younger and littler than you. You could hurt him and hitting is not okay."
And last you want to treat him with love and consideration, for that – as always – is where caring about others and not wanting to inflict pain begins.
And maybe later – but never at the time – on his own, Jamal may come to his brother and say, "I'm sorry I hit your arm. I didn't want to hurt you. But next time if you mess up my Pokemon cards, maybe I will want to hurt you."
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents If They'd Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.