You'll often hear kids say, "I'm sorry, but..." and follow their apology with an excuse. "I'm sorry, but you were looking at me." "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." So, what your child is actually saying is, "I'm sorry, but it was your fault." Or another way of saying that is, "I'm sorry, but it wasn't my responsibility." Know this: if your child is in the habit of making excuses and not owning his mistakes, he's not learning how to take responsibility--which 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 this question: "Why did you do that?" And the child's goal is really 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. In fact, when kids first become verbal, you'll start to see them make excuses for their behavior--and at that very young age, it's mostly harmless. But as children get older, they often begin to use excuses and blaming in order to avoid being held accountable for inappropriate behavior. And without accountability, there is rarely genuine change.
Know that in some cases, your child is using the words "I'm sorry" just to manipulate you. Now, when I say "manipulate," I don't mean it in the sense of cunning or criminal behavior. In this case, manipulation is the act of trying to get someone to do something for you. So puppies manipulate, kids manipulate. In other words, "I'm sorry" is the manipulation your child is using to satisfy or placate you so you won't be angry--and they won't get into trouble. The damaging part of this equation is when your child gets in the habit of following that apology with an excuse that allows them to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
You'll see adults doing this all the time: "I'm sorry I cut in front of you, but..." "I'm sorry I was late, but..." Maybe the person is really sorry, maybe not. But if they're giving you a "but" with it, they're not willing to take responsibility. So the correct kind of apology for anyone would be, "I'm sorry, I'll try harder." Or "I'm sorry, next time I'll do this instead." In those statements, the person owns what they did, and owns what they're going to do differently next time--and that's the key.
I want to be clear about this: apologies are good things. If you're sorry, say you're sorry. If you're sorry because it's a social custom or it's the right thing to say, go ahead--nobody should ever be berated for apologizing. But if your child says it and puts an excuse behind it, make no bones about it: that excuse has to be challenged.
So what should parents be looking for? 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." What he should be saying to her is, "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." 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." In actuality, that really 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 really owning his mistake. He's solving the problem by accepting accountability for his actions. This is a very important and powerful difference, and I think it's one that parents really need to pay attention to.
4 Techniques You Can Put in Place Today
Here's the bottom line: your child can solve his problems in life by blaming other people and giving false apologies. Or he can own them by admitting he was wrong and being held accountable for his actions. One of these approaches to life is much more constructive and healthy than the other, and will prepare your child much more for adulthood. The other will leave them in a dead-end of excuse-making and blame.
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 that kind of 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 repertoire of parenting skills. Remember, skills empower parents, and empowered parents can empower their children to meet life's problems successfully.