Lisa Belkin has written a piece for the Sunday New York Times Magazine about apologies and how everyone is doing it so badly these days. As an example, she points to BP chief executive Tony Hayward’s I’m-sorry-but-it’s-not-really-my-fault apology. His insincere regret, she says, is worse than no apology at all.
I agree with her there. A bad apology is worthless. Except when it comes from a child. While Belkin wonders at Motherlode if we aren’t teaching our young children to “go through the motions” when we make them apologize for something they don’t regret, I believe there’s value in a forced expression of remorse.
A three-year-old who swipes another child’s toy may not feel any regret whatsoever for her actions. In fact, she probably feels pretty good because she got what she wanted. And when her mother marches her over to apologize to the other child, her words are likely just that: words she has been told to say.
But by making her say them, several things are accomplished: The child she wronged feels better about the incident. And she learns that even if she isn’t, she should be sorry. And maybe someday she really will be.
But more important is that making a child apologize for something teaches them how to admit and be comfortable with being wrong. Which, for some kids, is the biggest hurdle of all.
When she was younger, my own child hated being forced to apologize. Even if she was truly sorry, admitting it was painful. Uttering those two little words filled her with such anxiety that I often wished we could just skip it and move on. But I never let her off the hook. Because bad apologies don’t just come from people who aren’t really sorry. They also come from people who never learned how to say it when they mean it.
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