The public shaming of celebrities and politicians has lead to an avalanche of lengthy and florid public apologies that are still questionable in their sincerity. What does “I’m sorry” even mean when the words can’t begin to make up for the wrong-doing? It’s a question I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as I parent my two young sons.
It’s a part of our job as parents to correct our kids when they do something hurtful. We teach them to say “I’m sorry” before they’ve even begun to grasp the concept of what an apology is or why they should say it. My kids learned very early, like most kids do, that “I’m sorry” is something you say when you’ve done something wrong. There is something precious about a two-year-old lisping a teary-eyed apology.
It didn’t take long, though, before my kids also learned that saying “I’m sorry” was the quickest way to get out of trouble. I don’t have to look far to find grownups who’ve also learned that saying “I’m sorry” is a short cut to absolution.
“He kicked me on purpose!” my six-year-old hollers loud enough for the neighbors to hear.
“Sorry,” my eight-year-old mutters, without even looking up from his iPad.
“You’re not sorry,” the offended child huffs while his older brother ignores him.
I’ve grown frustrated that my kids seem to be missing the point of expressing regret for their wrongdoing, so I decided to stop prodding them to apologize.
“Tell your brother you’re sorry for hitting him.”
“What do you say for dumping ketchup on the table?”
“Tell your friend you didn’t mean to take her ball.”
Instead of teaching them empathy and respect, I’ve taught them that “I’m sorry” is the minimum you can do to make amends and keep Mom happy.
No more. I’ve stopped prodding my children to apologize, stopped demanding they say “I’m sorry.” Quite often they aren’t – not really – and saying the words isn’t making anyone feel better. Those half-hearted apologies are simply a way for them to grudgingly acknowledge they’ve done wrong. And I’m tired of playing referee. Taking a page from the writer’s handbook of “show, don’t tell,” I now put it upon them to demonstrate, through actions rather than words, that they are regretful.
Instead of responding to wrong-doing with “Say you’re sorry,” I’ve started saying, “What can you do to make this better?” It has put a different spin on our household conflicts because instead of demanding they apologize, I’m asking my kids to actually think about what they’ve done wrong and how they can make amends. For every hurtful/wrong thing, I now tell my kids they must ask the offended party what they can do to fix it. “You hit your brother. What can you do to fix it?” puts the expectation on them to resolve their mistake with more than two words.
It’s not an easy or necessarily quick solution to conflict. Sometimes they can’t think of a way to make amends.
“I said I’m sorry,” they tell me, frustrated by the new parameters.
“You still need to think of something you can do to make up for it,” I tell them, wondering why I’m making this parenting job even harder than it already was. But it works – and I can see them trying to puzzle out a way to correct the hurt they’ve caused.
If they can’t think of something, I help them out.
“Why don’t you ask your brother how you can make it better?”
If that still doesn’t work, I’ll offer a suggestion: “Well, you slammed the door on your brother when he was trying to come in the house, so maybe you could put his coat and shoes away for him now that he’s inside.”
It takes a little longer to resolve an issue when a rote apology isn’t enough, but now I know – and more importantly, they know – they’ve resolved a problem through a heartfelt attempt to correct it. Learning to say “I’m sorry” is an important lesson to teach young children, but it isn’t enough to teach empathy and respect. Kids need to also learn that actions are often necessary to correct their mistakes. My hope is that by making my kids consider what the other person might need to feel better, they’ll be more empathetic – and hopefully more inclined to think first before speaking or acting in a hurtful way.