3 Steps to a Heartfelt Apology

SorryHave you ever been on a playground when your child grabs a toy from another child? What’s the first thing you say? I know what used to come out of my mouth within seconds. “Give that back right now. And say you’re sorry!”

But, you know what? I regret that. And I don’t tell my kids to say they’re sorry any more. I realized I was sending my children the wrong message when I said – no, insisted – that they say they were sorry even when it was clear they were not.

I mean, as adults, in personal and professional relationships, it’s very upsetting when someone apologizes to you when it’s clear they feel no remorse. So the apology is hollow, and often the relationship suffers because of it.

So, I changed my approach about apologies about 5 years ago. I realized back then that I was focusing so much on getting my kids to say the right words – whether it was “please,” thank you,” or “I’m sorry” – that I didn’t even allow them time to process whether they were respectful, grateful, or truly remorseful.

Now, we allow our children to apologize when they genuinely feel sorry about what they have done or even failed to do. That doesn’t mean there are no consequences when they break a rule or hurt someone’s feelings. My husband and I step in and let them know when we feel they have done something that isn’t right and we explain why. But then it’s up to our kids to give it some thought and to consider the other person’s feelings before they apologize. We even have a specific structure for apologies in my family. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter in my book about forgiveness that explains how we apologize now:

We don’t believe an apology should stop at the words “I’m sorry.” It has to go beyond that for us. We require our children (and ourselves as well) to say what we are sorry for. Like if my son was blasting music while his sister was trying to do her homework he could say, “I apologize for playing my CD so loudly.” Then we go one step further, and here’s where it becomes a very individualized and personal thing. We simply say that the apology has to have one more sentence after the “I’m sorry for…” part. And that sentence has to relate to what happened. That’s all the guidance we give. That may seem a bit odd, but having one more sentence in an apology can serve two purposes.

First of all, it sometimes gives the person who has been wronged some context for what happened. Secondly, we have often seen our children reach out to try and make amends with that additional sentence. So my son might say, “I’m sorry for playing my CD so loudly. Next time I’ll be quieter.” We have found that having the time and space to be ready to make an apology and then having the structure in which to frame that apology has made all the difference in our family. There has been a surprising benefit to having this structure for apologies for us. When we started this, I thought this structure would encourage all of us to go beyond simply saying, “I’m sorry” and therefore give the apology more depth and context. What I didn’t realize at the time, but has since been pointed out to me by my son, is that it also provides limits to an apology. In other words, an apology doesn’t have to be ten minutes long to express how very, very, very sorry you are for something. The apology can be just a few sincere and heartfelt sentences. What a relief, especially for a kid!

By the way, what if you are on the playground and your child takes another child’s toy? It may be a bit uncomfortable when the other parent is expecting your child to apologize. It’s not always easy to do something another parent might disapprove of, but it’s important to approach this situation authentically. I believe that letting your child know that taking the toy was wrong, and that you expect when she is truly sorry, she give a heartfelt apology, is much more authentic than insisting on “I’m sorry” right away. Telling the other parent that you agree their child is deserving of an apology – a genuine one – may not necessarily satisfy the other parent. But that’s okay, as long as what you do is consistent with what you believe is right, and what you want to teach your children. After all, I have found that a sincere apology is truly worth waiting for.

Written by Mary O’Donohue

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