Contributed by Jody McVittie
I regularly hear adults telling children to say, “I’m sorry.” I’m all for people (adults and children) apologizing and fixing their mistakes… but I don’t think saying, “I’m sorry,” when you might not be sorry is really helpful – for the person who made the mistake or the person who was hurt. And yet… it is important to teach our children to make amends. What do we do?
We can remember that being sorry is a feeling. Asking children to say, “I’m sorry” while they are still upset or feeling hurt themselves gives a confusing message to both parties. You can say you are sorry and be “done” with your mistake even if you don’t feel any regret. Hearing “I’m sorry,” from someone is supposed to make you feel better even if they aren’t really sorry.
We can’t make someone feel better. An apology is an offer to repair a mistake. It is an expression of regret that allows the hurt person to recognize that their pain matters. An apology may or may not be immediately accepted. It may or may not make the person feel better. (As parents we sometimes get into mischief here. We feel badly that we hurt our child and we want to erase that hurt and make him or her feel better – because then WE feel better. It is more respectful to make the offer and have faith that our child will process it at his or her speed.)
We teach our children to make amends we:
– Model making amends by sincerely apologizing to your children after you have calmed down and are ready to make a brief apology (without justifying why you weren’t on your best behavior.) Kids really do learn by watching.
– Model asking for an apology when you need one. Remember that if you have made a mistake too – that you, as the adult, always get to apologize first.
– Recognize that kids who hurt others carry a moral burden. When they have calmed down, it is helpful for them to figure out how to fix the mistake. Donna Goertz writes beautifully about this in her book, Children who are not yet Peaceful.
– Know that “apologies of action” can be as or more powerful than the words “I’m sorry.” The prompt can be simple. “I know you were mad at Jeremy at the time but it also doesn’t feel good later to have hurt someone. What do you want to do to help fix the mistake?” Sometimes young children will draw a picture or write a note or invite a child to play again.
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Photo Credit: Funkyah