Years ago, I walked into the 4 year olds’ nursery school classroom and watched Mimi, a fabulous, feisty, third born child, collect all the playdough from the other three children at the table. The three were shocked; one protested loudly. Mimi looked up at me and said,
“Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” “Mimi,” I said, “Sorry isn’t enough.”
Every time I hear a parent insist that her child apologize to another, I cringe, and I think about Mimi. Sorry is not enough.
Teaching a child to say I’m sorry is in a category all of its own. While everyone seems to have her own idea of the importance of this act of civility, everyone agrees that it is a crucial part of the manners lesson. It is important in the big picture. Courts of law make rulings and impose sentences based on the guilty person’s show of remorse and contrition. And it is important in the small picture. Friends make up after a fight when the transgressor expresses his apology. The woman into whom you accidentally banged your grocery cart, forgives you when you apologize. Saying I’m sorry and genuinely meaning it, owning your misstep, really can work magic.
Parents teach children to apologize because we want them to learn to be courteous, to be socially appropriate, to show respect, and to demonstrate some accountability for their actions. We also know that learning to say I’m sorry is one of the rules of the game. If you want to have friends and to keep friends, to get along with people, you will need to learn to apologize for your mistakes, missteps, and misdeeds. But being apologetic is more than mumbling the words, I’m sorry.
Children come to believe that I’m sorry has a magic healing quality. It is supposed to make everything go away, just disappear, to be all better. It’s kind of like a get-out-of-jail-free card. It can signal the end of an unhappy or uncomfortable episode. Two children in preschool have had a fight. In their make-up dance, one says to the teacher who is trying to help them solve their problem, “But he didn’t say he was sorry.” For him I’m sorry is the magic phrase that means everything will be okay, and now things can move on, fair and square. But what is the transgressor learning?
Children need to be taught that being sorry means something, it is more than saying the words “I’m sorry.” Their expression of I’m sorry needs to include amends, real efforts at contrition. It cannot be flinging the phrase and running off to play again. The children who learn this lesson are those who have seen it modeled for them starting at an early age. I am sorry needs to be modeled and taught as a true expression of remorse and regret. It is an acknowledgment and a demonstration of accountability. Apologies are about taking responsibility for your action and then making amends. The real I am sorry says, I feel for you. I regret having done what I did because of the way it affected you. And that is on me.
Then there is the parent who insists that his child say “I’m sorry” to her sibling or to a playmate when, in reality, the child isn’t sorry at all. It is the parent, you see, who feels embarrassed or uncomfortable about what his child has done. He feels social pressure to make the child play by the rules and apologize. If the child doesn’t, then he is a bad parent. Actually, by in insisting that the child say he is sorry, the parent is teaching the child to lie. Very often the child isn’t sorry at all. She absolutely meant to grab the toy from her brother, hit her friend, tear up her playmate’s picture, t rip her classmate. She is not sorry! But Dad says she has to say she is sorry. Sometimes the child is asked to say she is sorry before she really knows what happened and what her part in the action was. The child might not even know what she is sorry about, and she is just parroting what her parent says. I am not at all sure that is a lesson you want to teach your child.
Perfunctory apologies don’t work for a lot of reasons. First of all, they are hard. Little Mimi was trying to get closure, she wanted to make the whole thing just go away. She was not remorseful. She wanted all that playdough. Sometimes to a child, the apology feels like he is losing, and that feels bad. No one likes to admit he is wrong, and the child may feel ashamed. A forced apology, begrudgingly given, is ineffective for the transgressor because the child is likely still experiencing the emotion that drove him to his misdeed. To top it off, the forced apology usually does not even address the situation or the behavior. When children learn that an apology includes a show of contrition, the needs of the wronged person take precedence. Whether the child feels sorry or not, he is still considering the victim.
When starting at a very early age parents introduce an apology as something more than a forced phrase to parrot, apologies add to the child’s development of empathy and understanding. When I’m sorry is accompanied by a show of contrition, by making amends, it will become an effective, life long, highly effective and meaningful skill in a person’s forever social skills tool box.
Here are a few tips for turning around the I’m sorry ship.
- Know that teaching sincere apologizing is fueled by and fuels the child’s developing empathy.
- Model apologizing deliberately by making amends to your spouse, your sister, your friends, all within earshot of your child.
- With two children, wait until everyone has calmed down (including you!) before facilitating the apology piece. The apology conversation should not reflect your emotions, including anger.
- Be sure to give both the victim and the transgressor a chance to share the what and why. Part of empathy is paying attention to how others feel. All players need to feel heard, and it will release the child’s need to “stick to his guns,” unable to relate to his victim or accept responsibility for his behavior.
- Know that children’s apologies may not be spontaneous. A child may need to be encouraged to tune into how the victim is feeling, and she may need suggestions as to what might make that child feel better.
- Making amends and acts of contrition are more effective than I’m sorry. Try not to focus on the words. Making amends helps the victim to feel better and is reparative to the relationship in a way that words are not. (Suggestions for acts of contrition: get an ice pack, bring the child his “Lovie,” help him repair or build his project; do the child’s chores for him; give the child your turn or your place in line, The victim needs to experience the transgressor’s effort.)
- Praise your child for his n spontaneous or prompted shows of contrition, pointing out how much better the victim must feel.
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