Forcing children to apologise before they're ready may do more harm than good, researchers say.
Children know when someone is truly sorry and an insincere apology may increase the offended child's dislike of the child offering the apology, University of Michigan scientists reported.
It's better to give the offending child time and help to feel empathy, and then offer a sincere apology to the child they've offended, according to the study of kids aged 4 to 9.
"Make sure the child understands why the other person feels bad, and make sure the child is really ready to say 'I'm sorry.' Then have them apologise," said study author Craig Smith, a research investigator at the university's Center for Human Growth and Development.
In the study, Smith's team looked at how children viewed three types of apology scenarios among peers: unprompted apologies, prompted but willingly given apologies, and coerced apologies.
While kids viewed willing apologies the same, whether prompted or unprompted by adults, the coerced apologies weren't seen as effective, especially by the 7- to 9-year-olds, Smith noted.
Children of all ages thought the victims felt better after receiving a willing apology, but they saw the recipient of the forced apology as feeling worse than the recipients of the willing apologies.
"Coercing your child to apologize is going to backfire. Other kids don't view that apologiser as likeable. The teachable element of having the child apologise has gone away and the goal of the apology prompt - to help your child express remorse, soothe someone else's hurt feelings and make your child more likable - is lost," Smith explained in a university news release.
The study was published online recently in the Merrill-Palmer Quarterly journal.
Smith outlined how parents can help children respond with empathy after they've upset another person.
"When your child is calm, help them see how the other person is feeling, and why," he said. "An apology is one way to do it, but there are lots of ways. Research shows that even preschoolers value it when a wrongdoer makes amends with action. Sometimes this is more powerful than words.