How many times have we told our kids, or heard someone else do it, “You go and say you’re sorry” after two kids get in an altercation of some sort? And then the one kid, with a scowl on his or her face, begrudgingly mumbles, “Sorry.” Maybe then the adult says, “Say it like you mean it.”
Say it like you mean it? So…we all know he or she doesn’t mean it and we’re asking him or her to fake it?
I wonder if this isn’t teaching our children that everything will be ok as long as they say those words whether or not they actually feel regret? I wonder if we are teaching that the meaning of “I’m sorry” is instead, “Please don’t be mad at me. I’m saying I’m sorry, so I don’t have to feel guilty.” And it puts the other person on the spot to forgive when true acknowledgement of having done harm hasn’t been taken on. The response then is a begrudging acceptance, “Fine. Whatever.” So we end up with two kids who have fought and done harm to each other, or one to another, and both remain resentful and angry.
I have a different solution.
Let me start with some definitions. First of all, “I’m sorry” means, literally, “I feel sorrow.” or “wretched, full of sorrow”. We use it when we are empathizing with someone who is feeling pain. Your friend’s mother passes away, “I’m so sorry…” It isn’t an acknowledgment of fault. That is apology. “I’m sorry” is about how we feel and “I apologize” is admission of accountability for doing wrong. Both can be true in the same situation. I can be sorry that was late and made everyone wait, and I can apologize for doing so.
“I’m sorry” is often mistaken for accountability too. Have you ever been in a situation where someone hurt themselves, or is sick, and you say, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” and they respond with, “It’s okay, it’s not your fault.” Yeah, we get these mixed up a LOT. I usually reply with, “I know, I wasn’t apologizing, I was empathizing and feeling sorrow that you’re hurt.” (Yeah, I’m kind of a geek, I really do respond that way in that situation.)
So how to we clear this up so we can apologize to others, and teach our kids to do so in a meaningful way?
A true apology has three parts:
- acknowledging accountability – and sometimes this is simply owning your part, not admission of 100% responsibility
- feeling regret/empathy
- offering to repair, or “what can I do to make it better?”
Usually, one or two parts of that are missing, and the act of apologizing is incomplete.
Okay, so back to our kids. Often it gets mixed up and we teach our kids to say sorry, when what we really want is for them to own accountability for some action that caused harm. If my daughter hit someone, I want her to apologize. Whether she feels sorry or not isn’t something I can insist on. That comes with teaching and modeling empathy for others. If I’m doing it right, then she’ll feel regret on her own when she realizes someone was hurt. Ideally, we’ll invite dialog between the kids involved and find out who was feeling what, when and why it all went down the way it did. If a child is NOT feeling regret, or sorry, for an action…why not? Did they feel justified? Did something else happen prior that isn’t being acknowledged or apologized for? If so, it can lead to bitterness down the road, and resentment building up. Maybe two apologies are needed. This will likely involve more discussion, and a safe space where the children involved can open up to how they are truly feeling, and where vulnerability can surface when defenses can come down.
I think it’s important that we remember to distinguish between “sorry” and “apology” for our kids. I think it’s important that we don’t teach them that their actions are okay as soon as they say “I’m sorry” to someone, because those two words together become absolutely meaningless. We instead can insist on owning their actions, being accountable, and hope that through modeling and discussion and really listening to each other, they’ll feel sorry naturally. Once that happens, we can guide our children to seek repair.