OK this could actually be the title for my autobiography but I digress.
I read a recent "report" in the news saying you should not require young children to apologize because they don't know what they're doing and so it doesn't mean anything to them.
I call B.S. on that. My kid does something wrong, I ensure that they look the other person in the eye, explain that they're sorry, ask if the other person is OK and if there is anything they can do to help. Do I care if they are really sorry? Nope. Totally irrelevant to the exercise. This is called social conditioning. They need to know that this is the behaviour expected of them and nothing less is acceptable. They need to know society, as currently represented by me, will make sure they own up and take responsibility. It's not just the words, mind you, but the inquiring about how the other person is doing and offering to help that is what ensures it is not just an empty mouthing of words.
As for the idea that the kids do not understand what is going on? Double B.S. I have forced three year olds to say sorry and the way they resist doing that proves to me that they completely know what is going on. If they didn't, they wouldn't struggle so much.
To the point that they are not really sorry and so making them apologize doesn't aid in the development of the empathy, that ignores part of the role of the parent - I will MAKE them sorry for bad behaviour. Does this miss the point? I don't think so. They will learn bad actions that hurt other people must be made right and the only way to lessen the fall out is to engage with that person and make a proper apology. One of my kids is the type who honestly does not care so much what the world thinks of him. This is a fantastic quality but it does sometimes result in appalling behaviour. I can't make him say sorry but there are repurcussions until he offers up an apology which I find acceptable. He hates it. I hate it. It is hugely embarassing. So what? As B.B. King says, it's part of "Paying The Cost To Be The Boss".
There is also something powerful in an apology, the transgressor gives power to the victim and it can be very transformative for both. I used to be a lifeguard and would regularly have upset kids come up to me to complain that someone splashed them, took their flutter board etc. and those kids just expected me to chew out the other person. Instead, I shocked them by inviting the other kid over, have the complainer reiterate their issue and give the other kid a chance to respond. Almost every time the other kid would quickly apologize and they would both go off happy. I saw this a few times as a prosecutor when one of the people involved in the accident apologized spontaneously to the other person and you could just see the anger and hurt fall away. Both parties would be kind of choked up. Those were some of the few outright "wins" in my experience.
But here's the rub - you have to do the same thing. Saying sorry was not really modelled behaviour in my home or a message I embraced growing up. However, I have nver felt as truly sorry as often as I have since I became a parent. I also have never apologized so much since I became a parent. I screw up repeatedly through the day and the only way to move forward is to apologize to my kids. It also has to be a real apology - not one like - "Because you did this, I did that, but I'm sorry". That sucks and is not really an apology.
I think a lot of parents err on either side of this. Your kid runs into the street or they hit some other kid over the head with a sandbucket so you yell at them and then they start crying becasuse you yelled at them. I see some parents apologizing for that. Essentially apologizing for doing their job, looking after their kids and making them good citizens. Why? The kid was being stupid or was engaging in bad or risky behaviour. Don't run into the street or hit someone in the head and I won't yell at you. However, losing your temper with your kid because you're tired and they spill grape juice on the floor, lose their third baseball hat in a week etc. is something that you should apologize for. You lost it, behaved badly, own it and move on.
Some parents don't want to apologize because they feel it weakens their authority. Wrong. It strengthens it because you show that you are strong enough, mature enough, to admit wrong and fix the problems OF YOUR OWN VOLITION. It reduces resentment and leads to a better relationship. You are also modelling the behaviour you want to see them exhibit. Otherwise you're just sending the message that apologies are for the weak and children.
If I got any of this wrong, I'm sorry.