February 2023: Apologies

Traditional parents will sometimes demand that their children say things like “I’m sorry” when the parents feel the child has done the “wrong” thing.   Of course, if the child does this it is just about power and compliance; it is not an actual apology.

This got me thinking about what IS an actual apology.  What does it mean when we say “I’m sorry”?

Sometimes when a child says “I’m sorry”, even if it wasn’t coerced, and then repeats the “offending” behaviour, we think they must not really be sorry or they wouldn’t have done it again.  I think it is not so black and white.

Aside from the fact that habits are hard to break, so habitual behaviours are unlikely to just come to a complete end without a few “slips” there is a deeper aspect.   It’s one thing to understand that someone is offended by our words or behaviours and then to say, and maybe genuinely mean, “I’m sorry” if we say those words or do those behaviours.  But it is another thing to understand WHY the person is offended.

For example, if someone says “Hi, Bob” and I tell them that is really upsetting to me, they will probably try not to say it and if they do and I get upset, they will, genuinely, apologise.  But if I have explained to them that when I was a child someone would always say “Hi, Bob” before they flogged me, they will be more likely to understand and to not repeat it in the future.

The implications for parenting are these:  1)  Don’t demand an apology, since even if you get it you aren’t actually getting it; 2)  Don’t assume that if the behaviour is repeated it means your child wasn’t really sorry and 3)  If your child does something that bothers you, explain to them WHY it bothers you.   It doesn’t necessarily mean they will stop or they will say, or be, sorry, but it makes it much more likely.