How many times have we seen this scenario: Mom’s slogging through Target or the grocery store when one of her kids hits the other, causing Mom to bend over and grab the child’s hand. She sternly orders her, “Say you’re sorry!” to which the child grumbles the appropriate apology. A minute later, when Mom’s attention is back on her shopping, the kid goes and does it again.
I’ve seen it several thousand times myself.
Sorry, as a word, means very little to kids. It’s a thing that’s required, like “please” and “thank you,” but kids say it largely to appease adults, and the word has very little in the way of meaning or impact. It’s a word without identity; you can’t point to “sorry,” and it’s not a cat or a sandwich or a ball at the beach. Even as a feeling it is hard to identify. It’s not happy or sad or hungry or tired, it’s just a thing you say when you’ve done something wrong. If you accidentally spill some cereal on the table or leave the car door open, you have to say you’re sorry. If you eat your sister’s cookie, you’re sorry. And, if you pick up a Lincoln Log and hit your brother over the head with it because at that moment you absolutely, positively hate him, still, you’re sorry. So what does it really mean? What is its purpose?
As parents we want to teach our children empathy for others. It’s part of teaching them that they have an impact on their world and the people around them. Teaching our kids to say “sorry” encompasses all sorts of good things, like making friends and sharing, so it makes sense that “sorry” is one of our first verbal lessons. In some ways we intend this word as a hinge, linking the behavior of one child to the feelings of another, and it makes sense to put it this way because we want those connections to be made in our children’s minds.
However, “sorry,” as a word, often turns up empty, while hurt feelings (or body parts) persist. This is why it becomes important to emphasize to children that the word isn’t just a word, it is also an action. We, as parents, need to watch for the “sorry” that becomes nothing more than a behavioral escape hatch, leaving the conflict largely unresolved.
Consider this scenario: Once, while doing something bad (cartwheels in the living room – seriously, girls?) one of my daughters kicked the other in the head. The kid who got kicked burst into tears. Why? Because she got kicked in the head. The other one screamed “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” and then burst into tears herself. Why? Because her sister wouldn’t “take” her “sorry.”
“But you kicked her in the head,” I explained, checking the first one’s skull for lumps. “I’m sure it hurts.”
“But I SAID SORRY!” my other child wailed.
I then had to explain that words are not magical. Words are not erasers; they cannot make bad actions go away. Only good actions can start to make bad actions feel okay. Now that she had done a bad thing (and cartwheeling in the living room is bad!) and someone had gotten hurt, she was going to have to think of a good thing she could do to make her sister feel better.
“I could get her a chocolate milk,” she said.
That’d be a start.
Perhaps part of the problem is how closely we tie saying “sorry” to accepting blame. Nobody likes to be blamed for something, whether they actually did it or not, and saying “sorry” is the easy way to “admit” blame. Whereas acting sorry is considerably harder; it’s an actual acceptance of culpability. And since it’s difficult enough to get children to say “I’m sorry” much less get them to do anything about it, we teach kids to link sorry to blame, whereas for adults it can simply be a statement of empathy, as in “I’m sorry you’re suffering.”
If one of my kids is crying because a toy of hers is broken and the other one responds, “I didn’t do it,” does she realize she could say “I’m sorry” without implying that she broke the toy? I honestly don’t know. What I want, however, is for my child to be sorry not as an admission of guilt but simply because she sympathizes with her sister’s sadness. She’s had broken toys and she knows what it’s like. Whether she did it or not, it is inappropriate for her to continue playing happily along when another person is clearly upset in the same room. By separating “sorry” from blame and the word from her actions, she can then be empathetic irrespective of guilt. And then she could actually do something, instead of just saying something; she could ask if the toy could be fixed or even just sit with her sister until she feels better.
The upshot, then, is that I think we all, as parents, need to rethink our impulse to tell our kids to “say sorry” and instead start teaching sorry as an action geared toward empathy. Even with very young kids, can’t we teach that “sorry” is an opening for some detective work into the feelings of others, rather than a punishment for misbehavior? Rather than making “sorry” simply a response to wrongdoing, can we teach it as an opening to the use of other words, like “Are you all right?” or “Can I help you?”
I know we all want to teach our children empathy: how to be sorry and how to help others when they have been hurt. I also know that sometimes all of us fall prey to the ease of “say you’re sorry” in the interest of moving forward and not dwelling on negative behavior. Nevertheless, if we can take a little more time to teach our kids what “sorry” really means and how to show it, everyone might be a little happier in the end.