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I taught for several years at a residential school for children with emotional disabilities before staying home after the birth of my second daughter. I returned to teaching, finished my Educational Leadership program in May of 2012, and now work as our district's Writing and Social Studies Coordinator. I have always loved writing and find constant inspiration from my family. Maybe someday, I will get to see my name on the cover of a book!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Day #20: Thoughts on I'm Sorry

Today is Day #20 of the 2014 SOLC hosted by twowritingteachers.wordpress.com.

Several years ago, we were on vacation with another family and their seven-year old smacked their nine year-old, sending her sprawled out on the deck. There were tears, there was yelling, then there was the mandated apology. When it became clear to the smacker that she would not re-enter the group until two words came out of her mouth, she relented.

"I'm sorry," she growled, her eyes squinted, her forehead wrinkled, her head shaking side to side.

I don't think she meant it.

Today, after school, the children who stay after school for the extended day program were in line by the bathroom. I have no idea what had happened, but one of the boys was crying angry looking and sounding tears. Two other boys stood nearby with narrowed eyes and tucked chins.

"Just say you're sorry," the young woman who was apparently in charge was saying to the crying boy. "Then we can forget about it."

I've given a lot of thought to apologies over the years between Margaret's growl and this young man's situation. One of my favorite pieces about apologies is the chapter in The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. He offered a three step formula for apologies, consisting of I'm sorry, here's what I did, and here's how I will make it better. I love that apology formula for when a person really means it. But what if they don't?

A few years ago, I was embroiled is an issue with Julia and the rage was stoked even redder by her refusal to say sorry. "You actually are telling me to lie, Mom," Julia said.
Right in the moment, I was in no frame of mind to stop and reflect, but clearly, I've thought about this statement since. What if you say you're sorry but you're really not? Isn't that not telling the truth? How is that not a lie? She had a point.

I'm thinking that there are categories of apologies, although I am not sure how many there are, and I'm open to additional nominations.

1. The "I was made to say it" apology. Here's the one that they boy in the hallway might say and definitely the one that Margaret squeezed out. I do not think that the skills learned in this sort of circumstance transfer to any sort of positive interaction. In fact, I suspect that forced apologies lead to some really hostile behavior when those involved are unsupervised. My authenticity rating: 1

2. There's the "I need to get on with life" apology. This is the one that is given when a sister borrows a shirt without asking and the the affront is discovered during school hours. My authenticity rating: 3

3. The "It's easier to say sorry than to deal with the real issue" apology. Sometimes my husband doles these out, but he rarely gets away with it. He would rather say he's sorry than talk about the fact that he needed a lot of reminders to stop watching basketball and help in the kitchen. (I write this lovingly...)
My authenticity rating: 5

4. The "I just can't say sorry, but actions speak louder than words." There are a couple of specialists of this type under my roof. We have an unspoken agreement that sometimes these can count as the real thing. My authenticity rating: 9

5. The "My stomach hurts and my legs are wobbly and I might not sleep well because I know that I messed up and I feel really bad about it" apology. These are the ones that lead to the three part apology described by Randy Pausch. These apologies happen when someone's behavior has unwittingly caused serious hurt and I don't know that everyone really feels the sensation that I've described. Empathy is at the core of these interactions. My authenticity rating: 10

The bottom line is that I really don't believe in forced or fake apologies. I believe in teaching children of all ages the importance of taking responsibility for hurtful behavior, whether the hurt is physical or emotional. I believe in teaching children that when they say sorry and mean it, that statement can go a long way in repairing a situation. And, I believe in coaching children how to express a meaningful apology. But I don't believe in asking for, demanding, or mandating a vacant declaration of two words that is at best a pathway of least resistance and, at worst, is a lie and a potential pathway to more destructive behavior.

I will say that Margaret has grown into a really great young woman, although I can't attest to her apology skills. And, tonight, I'd guess that the crying boy in the hallway said sorry and eventually stopped crying. However, I doubt that he has forgotten about it.

Would welcome others' thoughts on "I'm sorry"!


  1. You bring up so many interesting points about apologies. I agree that empathy is such a major factor. It's not so much the words "I'm sorry" but the reflective piece that goes along with a choice made that was better off not.
    I'm sorry if this doesn't make sense. I'm tired and my writing is affected :)

  2. I totally agree with you. The forced apology is never good. Making someone say something they don't mean is meaningless and doesn't serve anyone.

  3. Loved your whole post and the descriptions of the "apologizers". I usually tried to have the instigator make amends somehow and the injured party describe how the other made him or her feel. Making restitution seemed to help.

  4. I liked your categories, Melanie. I sometimes think that there are levels of authenticity in apologies just as there are levels of authentic relationships. When someone I am close to is inauthentic, it bothers me...but for other more surface relationships, I am not as picky. Thoughtful post, though - you have me thinking.

  5. Melanie - I learned a long time ago that forced apologies do not work and only teach children to say the words so they can get back to what they want to do. I remember when I was working with very young children who would say "I'm sorry" very quickly and sometimes I would have to say "Sometimes, 'I'm sorry' isn't enough". Maybe they needed to fix something or through actions show concern or compassion. Other times, you have to come back to it after they have had some time to reflect on what they did. There is a point of finding a balance - children need to recognize that they have made a mistake - even if it was an accident and need to learn to do something. These negotiations take time. Consequences take time. I love the various examples you gave. I need to bookmark this post to come back to when I have more time.

  6. And sometimes the parties involved need time and space in order to be able to reach the point they are willing and able to give an authentic apology. Forcing an apology probably doesn't speed the process up, but I suspect that may be part of the motivation for those who try to force one.

  7. Such a great post. If words are said often enough without thought, they become meaningless. I know I'd rather have no acknowledgment than have a forced, insincere apology. Thanks for giving me something to think about tonight.

  8. Ohhhhhhh. You have given me a lot to think about...I will be rereading and pondering.
    Thank you!