Friday, October 29, 2010

Sounding off on "sorry"

Timmy hurts Mickey.  Timmy's mom, witnesses the 'offense' and forces Timmy to tell Mickey he is sorry.   We've all heard the the parental battle cry of "_________!  You say you're sorry RIGHT NOW!"   Hell, most of us have probably uttered the battle cry on more than one occasion.  It's a default reaction to righting any number of playground/schoolyard/sibling wrongs.  

But does "sorry" make the wrong righted?  Is this even the right thing to do?  I am a bit torn about this. 

IS Timmy sorry?  Or is it Timmy's mom who is sorry?  Does it matter?  And does making kids say they are sorry for their actions give them any greater understanding of the situation as a whole, or the feelings incurred?  Does it make the situation any less likely to occur in the future?  And most importantly, does it actually help instill any greater empathy for others?  Does it help kids have any better understanding of the damage they caused?  

I guess my problem with the business of making kids immediately apologize for their wrong is that their apologies often aren't actually coming from a place of sincerity.  We've all heard and seen kids who mutter "sorrry" under their breath, or who sing-song it left, right and centre while continuing to bash some other tot every two minutes.  Not useful, in my estimation, to changing the behaviour behind the incident or to helping the wronged party feel better.  Not useful, because the kids aren't actually sorry. 

While these incidences do help us, as parents, to feel less guilty about the actions of our children, I wonder if the forced "sorry" is really the way to teach kids about appropriate and innappropriate behaviour.  And if this kind of "sorry" isn't the way to go, what else should we be doing?

I've been experimenting lately, trying to veer away from the automatic "say you're sorry" route, and here's what I've been trying to add into my repertoire. 

1.  Address the incident as immediately as possible, saying something like: "So and so really doesn't like to be hit (pinched, have their toy grabbed, whatever).  It hurts their body and their feelings!"  and then turning to address that other child and asking:  "Are you alright?" and tending to their needs to model nurturing, caring and empathy.

2.  Then leading my child away for further conversation about the behaviour.  Asking if they understand and/or want to try to do something to make so and so feel better.  If yes, brainstorming what that could be.  If no, letting them have some distance from the situation, but making sure they know that they can always come back and talk to their friend about what happened when they are ready.

3.  Using the incident as an example when things happen in reverse.  (Ie. if someone hits kiddo and s/he doesn't like it, taking time to validate their feelings, but also trying to remind them of how _______ must have felt the other day when you clobbered them).

4.  Making sure model the use of sincere apologies to them when warranted.  Ie.  "Hey kiddo - I'm really sorry I lost my shit on you yesterday, I was really tired and feeling pretty frustrated when you wouldn't listen, but I know it doesn't feel good to be yelled at, and I should have taken some deep breathes and figured out a different way to talk to you about what was going on."  Okay - maybe without the "lost my shit" part, but you get the picture.    Hopefully, both the sincerity in apology, as well as talking about different ways I could have done things will eventually filter in.

I know that my opinion probably won't be the most popular among the parenting set, but I have really come to feel that the words "I'm sorry" are only really helpful when we actually, you know, are sorry for what we've done.  I feel like teaching kids to parrot "sorrrrrrry" every time they do something wrong, we give them a 'get out of jail free card,' without really instilling a real sense of what it means to actually be sorry

I'm hoping that using a more long-run approach will do just that.  But I guess only time will tell.


  1. Mm. I didn't make my own children apologize. Not that we really had many occasions where they'd need to, but no.

    And the kids I'm paid to parent for up to six hours a day? No on that, too.

    I do talk with them about how they made their friend feel. And remind them of a similar incident and ask them to recall how that made them feel.

    They usually find a way to say sorry, whether it's by treating people with a little more respect the next time, sharing a favorite toy, or just actually apologizing.

    But I leave it up to them.

    And it works pretty well.

  2. I actually agree completely. I don't believe in parroting "sorry" and that being the end of it. But it is so ingrained in our culture that our kids do it anyway. I've been having many conversations with my eldest about how he just shoots off "sorry" every time he does something wrong. I've had to un-teach him in a way, that saying sorry does NOT excuse his behaviour. It's an ongoing battle in our home...