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Everything after "But" is Bull

By James Lehman, MSW

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

  1. Challenge Your Child's Thinking on the Spot:
    If a child is in the habit of blaming others for their inappropriate behavior, I think it's important to challenge them each and every time they do that. Let's say your child has just behaved inappropriately, and given 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." Or "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 much as you can, try to talk those things out with your kids.

  2. Apologies Aren't Always Necessary:
    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."

  3. Talk in Terms of "Problem-Solving":
    Talk to your child in terms of problem-solving from the time they are very young, using statements like, "That doesn't solve your problem." Or "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 actually want to work on or change. The more kids think about things they have to do in life as problems they need to learn to solve, the better. That way, by the time they're adults, they're learning how to solve the problem of feeding themselves, housing themselves, clothing themselves. And they solve that in a million different ways, not only by getting a job, but by being respectful to their boss, by being able to get along with people enough to ride the subway, by learning how to follow the traffic laws and drive to work.

  4. Put it into Practice Today:
    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 really that 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." Or, "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 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.

"Everything after 'But' is Bull" is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents magazine. James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. This program offers practical, real world solutions for the most challenging problems parents face: defiance, disrespect, back talk, lying, cursing, lack of motivation, acting out in school and more. In this step-by-step program you'll learn the techniques James has used in his private practice to help children take responsibility for their behavior and help parents get back in control of their homes.

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