You often hear kids say, “I’m sorry, but…” and follow their apology with an excuse.
“I’m sorry, BUT you wouldn’t let me play my video games.”
“I’m sorry I kicked a hole in the wall, BUT you told me I couldn’t go outside.”
What your child really means is this:
“I’m sorry, BUT it was your fault.”
Or another way of saying that is:
“I’m sorry, BUT it wasn’t my responsibility.”
If your child is in the habit of making excuses and not owning his mistakes, he’s not learning how to take responsibility for his actions.
It also means he won’t be able to change the thinking that led to the inappropriate behavior in the first place.
The truth is, children start to develop their excuse-making habits as soon as parents begin asking them “Why did you do that?” And the reason for their excuses is clear: they don’t want to get blamed for something, they don’t want a consequence, and they don’t want to face their parents’ disapproval.
For young kids and toddlers, their excuses are harmless. But as children get older, they often begin to use excuses and blaming to avoid being held accountable for inappropriate behavior. And without accountability, inappropriate behavior will continue.
In some cases, your child says “I’m sorry” just to manipulate you. By “manipulate,” I don’t mean it in the sense of cunning or criminal behavior. Instead, I mean it in the sense of trying to get someone to do something for you. In other words, “I’m sorry” is the manipulation your child is using so that you won’t be angry—and they won’t get into trouble.
The damaging part of this behavior is that your child gets in the habit of following an apology with an excuse that allows them to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Adults do this as well:
“I’m sorry I was late, but…”
Maybe the person is truly sorry, maybe not. But if they’re giving you a “but” with it, they’re not willing to take responsibility. And thus the bad behavior will continue.
So the correct kind of apology for anyone should be:
“I’m sorry, I’ll try harder.”
“I’m sorry, next time I’ll do this instead.”
In the previous two statements, the person owns what they did and owns what they’re going to do differently next time—and that’s the key.
Don’t get me wrong, apologies are good things. If you’re sorry, say you’re sorry. Whether you say you’re sorry because it’s a social custom or because it’s the right thing to do, go ahead and say it. Nobody should be criticized for apologizing.
But if your child apologizes and puts an excuse behind it, that excuse has to be challenged.
So what should parents be looking for from their kids? I think it’s vitally important for kids to learn to say, “I was wrong.”
So, let’s say your child breaks his little sister’s favorite toy. His response should not be, “I’m sorry, but…” Instead, he should say to her: “I was wrong to break your doll. Next time I’ll move it out of my way instead of kicking it.”
So it’s fine if your kid says “I’m sorry”—that’s good manners. But when he follows that with, “I was wrong,” he’s taking responsibility for his actions.
And when he says, “Next time I’ll do this,” he’s solving the problem differently in his head. It’s a very different learning experience on the part of your child.
Here’s another way to look at it: how does your child solve the problem of being caught doing something wrong?
One way to solve that problem is to say “I’m sorry, but it wasn’t my fault.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t solve anything—it just gets your child off the hook.
But if he can admit he was wrong and explain what he’ll do differently next time, he’s owning his mistake. He’s solving the problem by accepting responsibility for his actions.
This is a very important and powerful difference, and I think it’s one that parents need to pay attention to.
Below are 4 ways to put an end to the “I’m sorry but…” habit of making excuses instead of accepting responsibility.
If a child is in the habit of blaming others for his inappropriate behavior, I think it’s important to challenge him every time he does that.
Let’s say your child has just behaved inappropriately, and gives you the, “I’m sorry, but…” You can challenge that excuse with:
“Tyler, it sounds to me like you’re apologizing, but then you’re blaming your sister.”
“It sounds like you’re saying you’re sorry for throwing the book across the room, but it also sounds like you’re blaming me because I wouldn’t let you go out. So, which is it? Are you sorry? Or is it my fault?”
As best you can, calmly talk it through with your child so that he understands why his apology doesn’t work if he doesn’t take responsibility.
When I deal with teens and young adults, I tell them:
“Look, if you’re not sorry, don’t say you’re sorry. But you have to say you were wrong and what you’re going to do differently. That’s important.”
In my opinion, apologies are nice, but they’re not worth fighting about. What you want to hear is:
“I was wrong to call you names. Next time I’ll go for a walk.”
Talk to your child in terms of problem-solving from the time they are very young. Use statements like these:
“That doesn’t solve your problem.”
“Let’s try to solve the problem this way.”
You can also say things like “What’s the problem?” to help kids learn to identify the thing they want to change. The more kids think about things they have to do in life as problems they need to learn to solve, the better.
By the time they’re adults, kids who have learned to problem-solve will begin to solve the problems of feeding themselves, housing themselves, and clothing themselves. And they will do so by getting a job, by being respectful, and by being responsible.
Let’s say you want to eliminate the “I’m sorry, but…” from your child’s vocabulary and implement these suggestions today. How do you do that? The same way you would with any new learning. You’d sit down with your child and say:
“Listen, saying ‘I’m sorry, but’ is not helpful. From now on we’re going to do it this way.”
And then you rehearse it with them and you practice it because repetition and rehearsal are how children learn. For younger kids, you can say:
“I want you to learn how to say, ‘I was wrong, next time I’ll do this.'”
Then practice and role play it, with one twist: your child pretends he’s you, you pretend you’re him. So he has the parental role of saying:
“How come you didn’t clean your room?”
And you say:
“I was wrong not to clean my room, Dad. I wasn’t paying attention. Next time I’ll take care of it right away.”
“I was wrong not to put my clothes in the hamper, Mom. I was in a hurry. Next time I’ll do it this way.”
With older kids, you can say:
“Look, apologizing and blaming somebody else isn’t going to help. From now on, let’s talk about whether you were right or wrong. And if you were wrong, I want you to say what you’re going to do differently next time.”
Here’s the bottom line: your child can go through life trying to solve his problems by (1) blaming other people and giving false apologies, or (2) by owning his problems, admitting when he is wrong, and being accountable for his actions.
The first approach will lead your child to a dead-end of excuse-making, blame, and misery. The second approach will lead your child to adulthood.
Believe me, it’s a great day for parents when they’re able to say to their child: “Yeah, that is a problem. How do you think you can solve it?” or “Do you want my help solving it?”—instead of having their child yell at them or slam a door in their face.
The truth is, the only way your child is going to understand this way of thinking or be able to use constructive language is if you start using it. It’s not an easy task, but when you introduce these kinds of ideas into your parenting style, it enhances your parenting skills.
Remember, effective skills empower parents, and empowered parents can empower their children to meet life’s problems successfully.
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.