In the last post we looked at the neurological process of apologising and why it’s difficult for a child of 4-5 years of age to do so.
Now let’s see how we can create a story that could help a child to get to the point of sincerely apologising. First, we need to know why this is important.
Can’t we just force our kid to say sorry so that they build up a habit of saying it? Then they’ll just learn that it’s the right thing to do when they behave badly, right? Wrong! Everybody hates a forced apology, it actually does more harm than good. It’s far better to teach genuine empathy to a child so that they feel like they actually want to say sorry. So that’s the first step, figure out exactly what you’re trying to teach a child when telling them a story with a lesson.
Take this real life situation as an example. A young father tried to correct his son after he spoke to him rudely. The dad was getting his son a yogurt from the fridge, but as he opened it and threw away the lid, the kid started screaming and crying and called his dad ‘naughty’. What had happened?
Well, the boy likes to lick the yogurt off the lid before he puts it in the bin, now he couldn’t and it was all dad\’s fault. How did dad react? Well after telling him off sternly for throwing an unnecessary tantrum, he began to explain to his son all the things that he does for him on a daily basis, that he wasn’t a ‘naughty’ dad and that he should actually be grateful for what he does for him. He then made the kid say sorry to him before he got to eat his yoghurt. After the kid stopped crying and realised the lecture was over he said sorry and sat there and ate his yoghurt. The dad was happy because he got his apology and he thought that he’d done a great job.
I’m not so sure that kid really learned a good lesson there though. And I don’t think that the dad really knew what lesson he was trying to teach his son. Granted, the boy did say sorry, but was it genuine? And was the lecture about being grateful to his dad for all the other things that he does for him, really connected to him being rude and calling him ‘naughty’?
The dad got his feelings hurt and felt unappreciated, therefore forcing the apology. But his son just wanted to lick the yoghurt from the lid and didn’t know how to express his frustration. The lesson the dad should want to teach in that situation is how to correctly talk to an adult when you don’t get what you want, or when something doesn’t go your way. Teach empathy to realise that hurtful words can cause hurtful feelings and try to evoke a genuine apology. Going on about all the great things you do for your kid is not going to make them better behaved, it’s just going to make them feel guilty and they are more likely to just put their head down and close up.
So before teaching a child a lesson, make sure you know precisely what lesson it is you want to teach. To work on getting a child to say sorry, there are 3 primary things to address:
Empathy. Putting yourself into someone else’s shoes and understanding how they feel is the first step to a genuine apology.
Make amends. Once they understand how the other person feels, you can work with them to find ways they can make up for what they did…and saying ‘sorry’ is the first step.
Find alternatives. Always give the child the correct way to react in a situation that they’ve misjudged and acted up in. There’s no point telling them how wrong they are if you’re not going to show them the right way to do it.
Ok, so now we have our lessons and a good idea of what we’re aiming for, we can go ahead and start plotting a story. This is where the creative fun begins!
We’re going to use the above situation as an example. Let’s have a go at creating a story that the dad could use with his son to teach him about how to deal with frustration better, not being rude and genuinely apologising after talking in a bad way to his dad.
My method to creating a short story like this is to start at the end and work backwards. It helps with continuity and gets a more solid plot in a shorter amount of time.
So the end of this story needs to be an apology with some kind of amends being made, a happy ending learning a better way to react and deal with frustration. Ok, so now we need to make it relatable to the individual child. Ask yourself, what does he like to do? What are his hobbies? What are some of his favourite things?
(I’ve found that it’s generally best to brainstorm things that they like rather than things they don’t like. This keeps the story positive).
Now let’s work back to the problematic part. The thing that went wrong. What happened to make him react rudely? Well, something was taken from him, something he wanted and couldn’t have, or something he couldn\’t do.
Now for the most important part – seeing the story from the other person’s perspective. Having a similar rude thing that he did happen to the character he is relating to in the story. This is where the teaching of empathy comes in.
So now let’s get some context and some specifics. There’s an infinite number of worlds and characters you can create for your story, but starting with a blank page is more difficult than being limited in your choices. Limitations speed up the process of creating characters and storylines. This is where using something the child likes or is interested in comes into play.
My initial thought about the plot would be that the main character, in this case a little boy, would be responsible for doing a job (something he enjoys), but he gets it wrong and makes a mistake. Then someone he likes (a friend or sibling) gets mad and calls him a rude name. The rest of the story will be done on a question/answer basis with the child to draw out what a better reaction could be. (This part is dependent on the age of the child and how much input they want to have, you could also just say what reaction you would like them to have).
I happen to know that the boy enjoys helping his dad in the garden. Cutting the grass, sweeping the leaves etc. So let’s use something around that. Remember, you can be as creative as you want.
Here’s a sample story that the dad could use specifically for his son, to try and find a better alternative to being rude and apologising.
One day there was a little boy and his younger sister who were helping their dad pick apples from their big garden. They loved picking the apples with their dad, and of course they loved trying to get the yummiest, crunchiest scrumiest apples they could find. It was their favourite time of year!
The boy, because he was a little bit older and was very good at climbing, was the one who got the apples that were high up in the tree. He would carefully pass them down to his sister who then put them in her basket. The basket was starting to get heavy, so she put it down and went to fetch another one from Dad.
“Don’t put too many apples in the basket”. she said to her brother who was still in the tree picking the apples. “If it gets too heavy then I can’t carry it, and it’s my job to carry the basket”.
But her brother couldn’t see how many apples were in the basket because he was high in the tree, and he kept on throwing the apples down from the tree and into the basket, he liked to play that game. By the time his sister came back, the basket was full to the top with apples and very heavy to carry!
“No! You’ve made the basket too heavy and now I can’t carry it!” she cried as the boy jumped down from the tree. “Why did you do that? You are a naughty bad brother, I hate you!”.
Now would be a good time to ask the child if he thinks that’s a good reaction from the younger sister. A child should know that that type of speech isn’t a good way to talk, so he should be able to see that it’s wrong. Then the important question:
“How do you think that makes the brother feel? After all, he didn’t realise that he had put too many apples in the basket.”
You want him to say that he would feel sad that his sister said that to him. “It’s kind of rude, right?” you could add.
“Is that how it would make you feel if someone spoke to you like that?”
Bring it round to make it more personal, make sure that he’s definitely relating to the brother in the story. Then he’s more likely to have an emotional engagement with the story.
“What would be a better way to react?”
Now you’re brainstorming ideas for how the sister could act that would be considered acceptable behaviour. This is easier for the child to do, because he’s not relating to the sister in the story, so he’ll be more open to give her ‘advice’ on what to do.
“What could they do to make the situation better?”
You want to elicit the idea of apologising as the first step, and then maybe helping each other make things better. He might say something like, ‘they could help each other put the apples from one basket to the other so that it’s not so heavy to carry’.
Now say that that is actually how the story ends. The sister apologised and they helped each other make things right. Everyone’s happy.
Give it a moment and then go back to what happened earlier on in the day. You could say something like: “Do you remember when you called me naughty earlier on? That made me feel sad too, I didn’t realise that you wanted to lick the yoghurt from the lid before I threw it away. You know that calling me naughty isn’t the right reaction to have, don’t you?”
Now you can go through the same process as above.
What would be a better reaction? What can we do to make it better?
By going through this process, there\’s a much better chance that his sense of empathy will be developed in a way that will make him want to apologise. Or at least know and feel that it\’s the right thing to do. Not because you\’re forcing him to, but because he genuinely feels it.
Stories can help children understand and feel things in a way that just wouldn’t be possible if looked at completely literally, or at least it would be more difficult.
Let me know if this helped. I will be choosing other subjects that are difficult to tackle with children and going through the process of creating a story around that issue. I’d like to do at least one a month. I hope it will help.
Please let me know any suggestions or feedback.