One Sunday morning, on a beautiful day when everything was going well and the whole sunny day was ahead of him, our then-8-year-old made a mistake. It was a thoughtless, rude act quite out of character, yet it made a big impact. After playing (very nicely, I feel obligated to add) with a younger neighborhood friend, he scrawled the message in chalk “Macy is dumb” for her parents to find later. Luckily, Macy could not yet read, but the damage was done.
“This is awkward, but I’m just telling you because I know I would want you to do the same,” her mother tentatively confided, as she told me what she had found. I confronted my son, and he confessed to me immediately, then briefly apologized before ducking his head, clearly ashamed. There were a few utterances of disapproval on the car ride home, but when we heard complete silence, my husband and I quickly noticed the tears flowing from our son’s eyes. We gave him some space to think, and chose to revisit the issue later at home.
This moment, I realized, was a gift. It was the opportunity to help my son identify a feeling (regret) and do something courageous: apologize.
Beverly Engel, author of “The Power of Apology,” recognizes the weight of this small act: “Apology is not just a social nicety. It is an important ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person.” In addition to that, it can be a powerful tool. “Since apologizing usually causes us to feel humiliated, it can also act as a deterrent, reminding us not to repeat the act.”
About an hour after the incident, my son wrote what turned out to be an emotional letter to his younger friend, but it was directed more toward her parents. Her parents, after all, were the true prize to him: the mother, a special-education teacher who randomly drops off stacks of her own favorite childhood books for him to borrow; the father, a wonderful role model who is lighthearted and warm and almost never turns down a request to play a pickup game of soccer at the playground. These were the people of our village, and to leave things unsaid meant possibly losing their trust in our son.
My son and I discussed at length these relationships, how good they made him feel, and how thoughtful these friends are. We discussed how they must have felt coming upon his hurtful note about their little girl. He found a quiet spot in the house and went to work writing a letter of apology.
When he finished writing the letter, I encouraged him to hand-deliver it (assuring him that no, he could not just drop in on their doorstep and run back home — that it would be better to face the issue head-on and with respect). I watched from our front porch as he crossed the street and made his way down to their house. What I saw next brought tears to my eyes.
I watched from afar as my regretful 8-year-old, shoulders slumped and head down, handed both parents (who had happened to be out in their front yard at the time) his note, how they both bent down to eye level with my son. The father patted his back, the mother gently hugged him while words I’ll never know passed between the three of them. I watched as my son’s body relaxed and I could tell from that distance that he was crying tears of regret and relief. He walked back to me, tears streaming down his face.
I hugged him, right there on the front steps, while he cried. “I know how rotten you feel, buddy,” I said. “That feeling you feel right now is regret. It’s good to feel that feeling because you made a mistake and hurt someone you care about. That feeling is there as a reminder for you to try your hardest not to do that again. You feel that feeling because you are so good and you have such a big, kind heart.”
I told him a story about when I had done something similar as a child: how I had written a note that wasn’t very nice about a friend, and how she found that note, and all of the repercussions of my actions. “It was very brave of you to face your mistake and try to make it right. I am so, so proud of you.”
It would have been easy to shrug off such a small indiscretion, to apologize to the parents on his behalf and just talk to my son about it in private; after all, he was just a kid who wrote a silly untruth in chalk. But the gift of accountability, the opportunity for an important lesson, was not lost on me in that moment, and I would have been a fool to let it slip by unaddressed. The gift was also to our friends, an acknowledgment that they were important to us, vital members of our village.
My son recently brought up this incident that had happened so long ago in his mind when he related it to something that had happened at school between friends. “Remember when I wrote that note about Macy? If I hadn’t apologized, it would have been so different. I’m glad I did that.” I had no idea that the incident was still in his mind, but it had a huge impact on his understanding of conflict and relationships.
If we value raising our children to be kind, conscientious, thoughtful humans, we must hold them accountable for how they make others feel and the importance of their actions. A small discussion can go a long way in helping them understand their effect on others. Conversely, helping our children understand this can be quite empowering and eye-opening to a young child; if his actions affect others, imagine how wonderful he can make another feel. That is the true gift.
Lauren Knight is a frequent contributor to On Parenting. Her blog is Crumb Bums.
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