Every once in a while I see someone else do something (usually in the realm of parenting) that I have done myself about a 1000 times and I am suddenly struck with how absolutely absurd I have been.
When my children were little and hurt a friend or did something naughty I would insist that they say, “I’m sorry”. This was ridiculously wrong of me. My children, I apologize for putting you and me and the other children through this exercise in soothing my own vanity. What was I teaching you? Were you honestly sorry or were you just going through the motions – were you lying to comply with what I thought was best? A compelled apology is not an honest admission of guilt, it is not a hope for reconciliation it is simply an act. It is a pantomime of good behavior.
An honest inventory of conscience would suggest that at least half of my motivation was to show whatever adult might be watching that I took your behavior very seriously and was working to fix it. Another part of my brain was thinking that if you just went through the motions you would in time internalize it and would treat other people with gentle humility and empathy. I am now convinced that this was probably not the best track. This has led me to a few days of prayer and contemplation which, as is God’s good way, has shown me several very instructive examples of what is wrong with compelling an apology.
With the years I have left (which are running out rather quickly) for this type of parenting I am determined to do better. Instead of insisting that you apologize because I am feeling embarrassed by your behavior and because you have objectively done something wrong, I will attempt to model the behavior I want you to have. Even if that means apologizing to a friend or teacher on your behalf or bearing judgement from other parents because I am not making you do the right thing right then. I intend to take the time to talk to you, on your level, to help you understand what is the right thing to do – but not force you into something you are not ready for or genuinely feeling. I will not assume that somewhere inside you are really super sorry and just need me to force it out of you. I will always expect you to behave properly, punish when needed, admonish and instruct. It is my job to raise you to be kind, Christian and worthy people. But I won’t force you to say something that is not true.
After some crazy today I had to step back and really think. What is the worth of a forced apology? Nothing. I can say words that I don’t mean and you can hear words that you know I don’t mean and we can all pretend that this is some ‘understanding’, but it is actually a short-cut that creates barriers to any real reconciliation. I can’t imagine as an adult how I would feel if a co-worker was forced to apologize to me by our manager or even some shop worker was instructed to say they were sorry to me by their employer. The apology certainly wouldn’t mean anything, but I have seen grown people insist that this sort of thing take place.
Have we taught our children this weird “I am owed an apology” mentality? I am beginning to think we have. This isn’t taught intentionally of course, but when the sandbox scuffle must end with the perpetrator being force by mom or dad to offer their wee little “I’m sorry” what is the offended child seeing and internalizing. It seems that a good number have learned that an apology is a punishment and they are owed the satisfaction of receiving it as recompense. If Sally hits Mary with a toy Mary gets to see her tearful friend being drug up in front of her to utter the mea culpa that is now Mary’s right as the injured party. Is this what drives the teenage Mary to tell her friend “Say you’re sorry or I am not inviting you to my party” or the adult Mary to insist “I am owed an apology or I am never shopping here again”? What an oddly entitled, misguided exercise.
When I was a girl of about 9 my grandmother told me that an apology never costs you anything, and can gain you understanding and respect. So I have always tried to remember that letting someone know you are aware that you might have caused them distress is in fact letting them know that you care enough about them to try to make things right. This small act of Christian compassion and charity is usually a really pleasant thing. I don’t know that I have ever been rebuffed when I admit that I have done wrongly in hurting someone in some way. It either ends in the person I have offended being grateful for my words or my burden being lifted by them assuring me I haven’t really caused them any distress. It is a lovely, grace filled moment either way.
Now, admittedly there are also plenty of times where I am oblivious to some distress I may have caused. So I welcome having my bad behavior pointed it out to me. It affords me a chance to set things right if I possibly can. If you say “wow that really hurt me when you said ___” I hope that I will always be gracious enough to see and admit my wrong. But if you come at me and say, “You were mean you own me an apology”, pretty much we will be at an impasse. It is going to be much harder for me to get past the insane entitlement of “I am owed” to work my way around to what did I do to cause you distress.
If an apology is being set up as a debasement of the the guilty party there is something very broken in the situation. Even if something wrong needs to be set right and the offender should offer an apology if the offended party is waiting to gloat the apology can not be that holy, spiritual moment. It is at best forced and very likely resented especially if others are involved to watch or enforce. An apology is the sign of peace, the understanding that when we injure each other we injure the Body of Christ. It is a literal healing and to mix that with power struggles or shame is like adding poison to what should be a healing balm.
This understanding of the apology as reconciliation isn’t something that a young child has the ability to understand. For them the ritual of ‘say you’re sorry’ is a token. I say this and mommy isn’t as mad, I say this because I was bad. I am not saying that we shouldn’t encourage our children to apologize when they have done wrongly, in fact it is very important that we do so. But it also doesn’t mean teaching them to say things they don’t feel or believe, especially as they get older. By modeling the behavior we wish to see. Perhaps mommy saying “I am so sorry Sally hit you, Mary, she is going to have a time out now.” demonstrates the proper behavior with out forcing Sally to lie or giving Mary the idea that the apology that she is owed is a form of restitution that she is entitled to insist on.
What a strange and informative week it has been. I am thankful to God for having the chance to reflect on this topic. Hopefully I have learned what I need to.