Is a Forced Apology Worse Than No Apology?

When the writer’s 8-year-old does something hurtful to a neighbor, she wonders whether he is old enough to appreciate the true meaning of "I'm sorry."

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I wish I could say that I find maternal inspiration in the words of the world’s great literature, or in the quiet process of meditation. Truth is, though, I’m a little more downmarket in my cultural references: the voices in my head when I talk to my kids are most likely to come from the parenting experts on The Cosby Show, The Brady Bunch, or The Andy Griffith Show.

If raising my daughter through her teenage years felt like living in an afterschool special (and it really, really did), then raising my second-grader is sort of like inhabiting a classic TV sitcom. He’s in that golden age of childhood, past the years demanding intense parental drudgery and before we have to worry about drugs and driver’s licenses. At 8, he loves school and soccer and us, his parents; he’s learning to think for himself but he still depends on us for most everything. Add in the scabby knees and goofy, gap-toothed smile and this is boyhood’s heart-meltingly sweet spot. Life with him is simple and lovely.

Until it isn’t.

Last weekend my boy was riding his scooter with a group of kids on our block—we are lucky enough to live on the kind of block where free-range parenting works well. He’d been gone for half an hour when I got a text from another kid’s mom. “Just a heads up,” she wrote, “M. threw a rock at a car.” The victim, she told me a few minutes later, was our new neighbor, a woman I hadn’t even met yet.

A minute later, he scooted up to our door and came in. I took a deep breath and asked myself, “What would Andy Griffith do?” I wish I could say I was entirely joking.

When you have a new baby, the work is dauntingly exhausting, physically wearying, but—truth be told—not terrifically mentally engaging. After those first few months, though, enduring parenting feels like pushing a rock up a hill every day, the job starts to take on deeper mental and psychological angles. Those early dilemmas, pondering whether cloth or disposable diapers were superior, seem quaint as your kid gets older and you start trying to figure out how to respond to aggression, how to encourage sharing and nurture compassion … and how to deal with your former sweet baby when he does something bad.

Not surprisingly, there exist opposing schools of thought about the right way to respond to childish misbehavior, particularly around the issue of apologies. A lot of parents still prompt their child to say, “I’m sorry,” even if it’s offered grudgingly. Others argue that until their child is old enough to understand the concepts of empathy and remorse, a forced apology is worse than meaningless; they counsel modeling the behavior you want to see and waiting until the child’s own development allows her to apologize and mean it. 

Is it wishy-washy to say I half-agree with both ideas?

The youngest children really don’t know how to say they’re sorry, because they really aren’t ready to grasp what it means to hurt someone else: They can’t yet understand that the feeling they’ve just inflicted on another person is one they would hate to have inflicted upon them. Do you still force them to apologize? I did, not because I thought it would help build empathy and compassion, but because it’s practice for when those skills develop. Yes, it’s an empty ritual—style, not substance—but I believe the habits of courtesy are important, too, a scaffolding on which the real stuff can grow.

I also agree with those who think kids learn to apologize over time, by watching how their parents (and other important adults) handle their own bad behavior and the times they hurt others (intentionally or not). This is where parenting takes you from your body to your brain to your soul—if you want your children to be good, morally thoughtful human beings you have to show them, day by painful day, that you are too. If you want kids who grow up to take responsibility and apologize for their wrongs, you must let them see you apologize—to your partner, your parents, to your children themselves (especially to them).

For those of us who sometimes find our pride gets in the way of truly saying we’re sorry—you’ll know it the minute you hear the words “I’m sorry you were offended, but…”—here’s an excellent primer on what a good apology contains. It has to be clear, reflect an understanding of the offense, express a desire to do things differently next time, and finally, ask for forgiveness. A little involved for the smallest kids, sure, but an apology containing these elements leaves no room for evasion or displacement.

When M came into the living room, I asked him to tell me what happened. At first, he tried to blame it on another boy, saying that even though he threw the rock, it was his buddy’s idea. I counted to ten, reminded myself not to yell (Andy Griffith didn’t yell), then I told him that it was irrelevant what anyone else did or said – all he can control, I reminded him, is what he says and does. He started to cry. He said he felt bad about himself. He was worried about being in trouble.

I let him cry, my hand on his head. I didn’t tell him it was okay. We went and sat on the couch together for awhile. I resisted the urge to talk—either to try to make him feel better or try to make him feel worse. Still channeling my inner TV-sitcom parent, I went and got a piece of paper and a pencil, and put them down in front of him.

Since he threw the rock, I told him, it would be up to him to make it right. First, he was to write the neighbor a note of apology. Then we would walk it over to her house. If she asked him to make amends, he would have to do so.

In the end, the neighbor said there was no damage to the car. She told M she was glad for his note of apology, and that she forgave him. She reminded him never to do it again. He stood in front of her and made no excuses.

On the way home, he put his hand in mine. It’s still smaller than my hand, but just barely. One day soon he’ll outgrow that simple, automatic habit of reaching for me, but I hope he hangs on to what he learned that day.





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