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Why we need to teach kids the difference between a hollow ‘I’m sorry’ and a real apology


My preschooler was busy with Play-Doh one day when she knocked over my glass of wine. It was an accident without any casualties — no electronics were fried, no clothing stained. Her eyes barely flicked at the light liquid spreading over the wooden dining table as she returned her attention to her crafts.

“Say you’re sorry.” The words snapped out of me. “Or,” I mumbled, ashamed of my tone, “say ‘oops.’ Just acknowledge something happened.”

I don’t remember if she said those words, or if I mopped up the wine while grumbling and moved on. What I do remember is how the next day, a familiar phrase kept coming up as she chatted with her toys.

“Oops, sorry Baby,” she said to her doll. “Oops, sorry,” she said to a dropped car. On and on it went, her little voice sweet with sincerity.

“You don’t have to … you didn’t do anything wrong,” I said weakly, unwilling to sow more confusion.

Then I started noticing how often “sorry” tumbled out of my own mouth. I apologized to my dogs when I tripped over them. To a bumped table. To a row of feet as I navigated luggage in an airport.

I’ve never been able to adopt the phrases “excuse me” or “pardon me,” which sound forced and formal to my ears. But in some quest to be perceived as a likable or sympathetic person, I’ve spent my life apologizing for taking up space. And that’s the last thing I want for my daughter.

“Wait and watch who your daughter becomes before you decide to worry about her,” says Carla Naumburg, a clinical social worker whose fourth book, “How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids,” explores how parents can stay calm in the face of challenging moments. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that because you are raising a girl she’s going to become an overapologizer.”

So I’m overthinking my parenting choices (again), but I still wondered what my kids might be picking up from me unconsciously — and how it could shape their behavior.

Craig Smith, a research investigator at the University of Michigan’s Center for Human Growth and Development, focuses on children’s social cognitive development and how it affects social behavior. Even preschool-age kids, he says, are capable of understanding that an apology can both express remorse and alleviate hurt.

Should parents apologize to their kids? And if so, what's the best way to do it?

There’s also a third element of apologizing we don’t always consider, which he explains is “reputation repair, or how you present yourself in the world.” We tend to view someone who apologizes as being nicer than someone who doesn’t. That, I realized, was probably how I developed my own misguided use of the language — saying “sorry” after bumping into someone (or furniture) made me appear to be a nicer, kinder person.

To better understand how apologies function in everyday life, I consulted Lizzie Post — the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post — who is co-president of the Emily Post Institute and co-author of “Emily Post’s Etiquette, 19th edition.”

The phrase ‘I’m sorry’ is such a powerful tool,” says Post. “If your child is armed with the ability to apologize, they’ll be more confident about conflict in their life, because they know they’ll have a solution for repairing a relationship.”

I noticed other situations where transgressions were more harmful than a simple accident. At 2 years old, my daughter tends to whack her 7-year-old brother out of frustration — usually triggered by him wanting to hug her or squeeze her cheeks. That creates a dynamic I don’t know how to sort out. Should she apologize for hitting? Should he apologize for overwhelming her space? Should I stay out of it and let them figure it out?

“If he’s not entirely respectful of her physical space, then there are two pieces,” Naumburg says. “Have a conversation with your son in front of his sister, and it will be a powerful lesson in boundaries and consent. With the little one, acknowledge her feelings: ‘It’s not okay to hit your brother, but you were frustrated right? What are some strategies to let him know what you need?’”

“At that point, a forced apology won’t do anything,” Naumburg says.

My rapid-fire “Say you’re sorry” wasn’t ever going to be effective. But what happens if you hit the pause button? Can a meaningful apology come when emotions aren’t so high? In the case of the spilled drink, it was clear that I was the one who needed time to think about it, not my 2-year-old.

“When you’re overwhelmed, exhausted and doing a million things at once, the part of the brain that helps you rein in your emotions essentially shuts down,” says Naumburg. “You could ask her to help you clean it up, or you could let it pass. Whatever you come up with will be more skillful and effective if you take a moment to calm down.”

Post describes how to deliver a heartfelt apology: “Ask ‘Is now a good time to talk? I would like to offer an apology for what happened.’ It gives the time and space for genuine feeling, and it allows the other person to be in a good space to receive it.”

The next step, Post says, focuses on the words. “You don’t want to use ‘if’ language; you say, ‘I’m so sorry that the thing I did had XYZ effect.’ Talking about what you’re sorry for and recognizing that it impacted people will help an apology get communicated.”

Another piece of the puzzle, beyond heartfelt words, is whether you can help fix the harm that’s been caused. “Making reparations can play a huge role in helping with hurt feelings,” Smith says. “But the take-home message is there isn’t one magic formula. It all depends on the severity of the situation.”

Did that mean I want my preschooler to pour me another glass of wine? Not exactly. Encouraging her to help me clean up would have been a better choice, though, than demanding an apology. When my kids (or, let’s be honest, my spouse and I) lash out in frustration, following it up with a thoughtful action can be more impactful than mumbling “sorry” and moving on. Hopefully, those lessons will emphasize the importance of being nice, while encouraging my kids to move confidently in the world, no apologies necessary.

Sarika Chawla is a freelance writer based in New York. Find her on Twitter @SarikaChawla6.

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