My work takes me to many school campuses. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear at least one teacher or administrator say to a child, “I want you to apologize.” The child usually looks down, scrapes her foot against the carpet or pavement, and says, “Sorry.” It can be expected that the infraction the child was asked to apologize for will soon be recommitted. This happens, of course, because the child is not really sorry for her behavior. She is performing a social function that someone else has asked of her. When a person is truly sorry, she speaks words of apology in the moment, shows a sense of remorse, sadness, or concern, and thinks carefully about how she speaks to and acts toward others in the future.
Many adults speak words of apology lightly. They do not mean that they feel bad about unkind words spoken or unkind acts committed. If we expect our children to learn to apologize truthfully, we must model the behavior ourselves. We must also teach our children when and how to apologize. Simply saying “Sorry” doesn’t cut it.
When children hit or pinch or kick each other, they are not usually sorry. The behavior isn’t accidental but purposeful. They may not have the words to use to express how they are feeling, so they let their actions speak. Maybe they have been taught that it is okay to express feelings physically. It is these behaviors, though, that adults often ask children to apologize for. Although the expression “Sorry” has no meaning, children learn that by saying it, those in authority are satisfies, and inappropriate behavior is forgiven without thought to future acts.
Typically on an elementary school ground, at any given recess, there will be several incidents of hitting, kicking and name-calling. Some of the culprits will be caught, reprimanded, and asked to apologize for their behavior. Just as many will get away with the behavior and experience no consequences. When a large number of children are playing, arms flail and strike others inadvertently. Kids run into each other because they don’t watch where they are going. Kids get hit with wayward balls. Often when this kind of accident occurs, a child says, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to run into you (or hit you, or smack you with the ball)” The response is “That’s okay.” Neither child pays much attention to the situation and play continues.
When an apology is warranted because a child has purposefully injured another with actions or words, the wise adult takes time to find out what was behind the unkindness. For example, when one of your children hits another, you might say, “You must have been very angry to have hit Sherrie.” If the child responds that she was, you can guide her toward a more appropriate way of handling her anger in the future. You could say to her, “The next time you feel that angry with Sherrie, you might say, ‘I’m so angry I want to hit you.’ Then walk away or seek adult help.”
Next, assist her in offering an apology that is based on her feelings. You could guide her to say to Sherrie, “I’m sorry that I was so angry that I hit you instead of telling you how angry I was.” Or, “The next time I feel so mad, I’ll tell you instead of hitting you.”
An apology like this builds relationships. It doesn’t make one person wrong and the other right. Often when children exhibit behaviors that adults feel deserve an apology, all the adult has seen is the hitting or kicking or name-calling. They have not seen what may have provoked the assault. Some children can be very manipulative about instigating responses from others, knowing that the other will get caught.
When my daughters were young, my older one was much more verbal than the younger. She could quietly say something to her sister that would provoke a response. The response was often that the younger sister pulled her older sister’s hair. My older daughter would cry loudly, exclaiming how badly she had been hurt. To ask my younger daughter to apologize for her behavior would not be appropriate since the behavior had been instigated. What was appropriate was to teach my older daughter how to get attention in a positive way. It was necessary to teach my younger daughter how to use her words to say how she was feeling when provoked or to ask for adult assistance. If we expect children to offer apologies, we need to be sure of the motive for the inappropriate behavior.
It rarely matters who is right and who is wrong when talking about apologies. The purpose of an apology is not to admit guilt. It is to reconnect with another when there has been a breach in the relationship. Most children do feel bad when they hurt another. Whether they verbalize it or not, they want to have relationships, not alienation. Teaching children how to mend relationships with apologies that express both the current feelings and what the future behavior will be does just that.
I work with a group of fourth grade girls that have been mean to each other since the beginning of the school year. For several months we have worked on building positive relationships and effectively communicating. We have also practiced the art of apology. Recently one girl in the group had been severely picked on by her peers. As we went around the table with each girl giving an apology such as “I’m sorry I was so mad that I talked about you behind your back, calling you bad names,” it became clear that each recognized how hurtful her behavior had been. The tension among the girls relaxed, and for a week there was no mean behavior among them.
An apology that focuses on bridging and building relationships instead of on blame and guilt is not what we traditionally think of when we consider the idea of apology. When understanding apology in this way, however, we remember what is important--relationships that are mutually satisfying to everyone involved. When we teach our children to apologize by mending breaches in relationships, we are giving them a tool that will assist them socially throughout their lives.