Parent Acts: How to get your child to apologize and really mean it

Story highlights

  • In the "Parent Acts" video series, CNN's Kelly Wallace asks parents to role-play
  • College students are 40% less empathetic today than 30 years ago, according to a study

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)It's a dynamic that just about any parent can relate to: Your child does something wrong, such as hitting their sister or yelling at a friend, you encourage them to apologize, they refuse, and then they barely say the word "sorry."

No real meaning, no real apology, no real empathy.
    You think to yourself: They didn't learn anything from this experience. How can I make sure they not only never do it again, but they also learn to truly empathize with the person they hurt?
    In the sixth installment of our CNN Digital Video series "Parent Acts," we asked people to act out how they handle these moments of trying to get their child to apologize. We then had a parenting expert listen to their role-play and weigh in with advice.
    Anke Schnell, an Atlanta mom, says that if someone messes with her son's Lego building, he can become explosive.
    "In that situation, he's more likely to feel wronged, like 'somebody came into my space, so why should I be apologizing?' " she said. "I find saying 'sorry' in the moment is not likely to happen, so that's why I don't even bother."
    Erik Fisher, a psychologist working in the Atlanta area and co-author of "The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With," said it's not always easy to get children to apologize exactly when the wrong occurs. In Schnell's case, he advised her to help her son "slow his engine down" by talking with him in a calm voice and then asking him how he thinks he might be able to show that he is sorry to the boy he hurt.
    "What might you feel when you say, 'I'm sorry'? What might be the best way to help him know you regret what you did?" Fisher said, demonstrating what a parent might say. "The biggest thing to me that we need to give our kids is emotional education."
    Kids today may not be getting enough of an education in how to handle their emotions and, in particular, how to empathize with people around them. College freshmen today are 40% less empathetic than they were 30 years ago, according to research done by the University of Michigan, which analyzed empathy among almost 14,000 college students over this time period.

    'Empathy is what's tanking'

    Educational psychologist Michele Borba who coined the term "Selfie Syndrome" has a new book, "Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World," based on decades of research and interviews with more than 500 children.
    Michele Borba's latest book is "UnSelfie."
    She says technology is partly to blame. Children "are more and more plugged in, and you don't learn empathy facing a screen, and right now you're encouraged to learn feelings by circling emojis, and that ain't going to cut it," said Borba, an award-winning author of 22 parenting and educational books, and motivational speaker.
    What's also happened, according to Borba, is too much focus on academic success and not enough on social and emotional development.
    "We've narrowed our definition of success so much to one side of the report card that all of a sudden, we're starting to realize, 'Hey, both sides need to be nurtured if we want a kid who is really going to thrive and survive,' and right now, I think empathy is what's tanking."
    Empathy can not only lead to happier children, said Borba, it also helps when it comes to developing personal and professional relationships that are critical to success.
    Employers "are not looking for the SAT score. They're looking for can the kid walk in, sit down, conduct the interview and, most importantly, get into the client's shoes," she said.
    Empathy can also lead to more resilient children, which is something college counselors expressed concern about in recent years. Too many college students lack the resilience to deal with setbacks, which leads to more anxiety and depression. This has led to campuses now implementing programs that teach resilience.
    "Why are we waiting until our kids are 18?" asked Borba, who believes this is too late. "The other thing we've done is, we've made all of this an either-or -- either we help our kids be smart in terms of academics, or we help our kids be smart in empathy -- and it's not. Both are critical, because both blend together, and that's how we're really going to help the child who is going to make it out there in a brave new world."

    Teaching kids empathy

    There is no question that some children are just naturally more empathetic than others, but that doesn't mean that empathy cannot be learned and developed. Borba said parents should start teaching it at the youngest ages, talking about feelings and emotions with our girls and our boys.
    We do a better job talking emotions "with our daughters, even as toddlers, than we do with our sons, so the pink-blue divide already spreads apart by the time they're 2," she said. "We talk consequences with our sons. We talk feeling with our daughters." Borba highlighted that by the time kids go into kindergarten, the divide of language and emotions between them is huge, creating a handicap for boys.
    What all parents can and should do, she said, is take some time to think about what values they want their child to have when he or she is 40, and then come up with a "family mantra" that illustrates those values such as "We are the caring Johnsons" or "We help, we don't hurt."
    By far, the thing that children she interviewed remembered most was their family's mantra.
    The challenge then is for parents to be an example of that mantra themselves, since our children remember our behavior and model it.
    "Do you, as a parent, say, 'I'm sorry' and mean it, meaning that you've changed your behavior? Are you teaching your child to feel what other people feel, to take perspectives?" said Fisher, the psychologist and author. "So when you say 'sorry' and you mean it and behavior changes ... you help them understand also what 'I'm sorry' means."
    Other ways to teach our kids empathy include trying to help our kids develop perspective and understand where the other person is coming from, for example, when we discipline our kids. We can tell our child that we are disappointed in their behavior and then ask our child how they would feel if it happened to them or how they think their friend feels and what their friend now needs to feel better.
    People who use that approach "are more likely to not only have a better-behaved kid but also one who is more likely to get into the shoes of somebody else," said Borba.
    We've also got to get our children practicing kindness, Borba added. "We are fabulous at practicing everything. ... We take our kids to violin, to soccer, to coding lessons," but we don't spend much time really focusing on making sure our kids develop a "kindness mindset."
    One way to practice kindness is the "one times two rule." That is, every day, say or do at least two kind things for someone, she said. Parents can make a list of kind things to do and tack it up on the refrigerator, listing activities such as smiling, holding open the door and welcoming a new child at school.
    But are we as a society understanding how important empathy really is? Borba says schools are acknowledging it.
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    "Schools are there, because they get it and they realize that this side has been lying dormant and a lot of our kids are in sleep mode as a result of it," she said, adding that just schools aren't enough.
    "All I'm trying to do is switch the dial up a notch and get people to start talking about this."
    What do you think is the best way to teach empathy to our kids? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.