“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I deeply admire Ali MacGraw’s teeth and swingy hair and pointy collarbones in Love Story. Ryan O’Neal’s (note my general scorn for the movie in that I can’t be bothered to remember the names of the actual characters) dad is sooooooooo mean and feels sooooooooo bad at the end of the movie that it is amazing. However, it’s a terrible movie, and that line is even worse. John Lennon said, famously, that “love means having to say you’re sorry every 5 minutes” (We accept your apologies, John. Yoko, not so much.) All of this sorrying/not sorrying is well and good for thinking adults (and Ryan O’Neal!), but what about our littles who are confronted with the clear evidence of their misdeeds and are asked, begged, cajoled, and strong-armed to say, “Sowwy?”
Many advocates of positive discipline (which just means really different from how we were raised and a whole planet away from how our parents were raised) think that forced apologies teach kids to be liars (saying that you are sorry when you are SO GLAD YOU ATE THE COOKIE/FILLED DAD’S SHOES WITH CREST/BIT THAT LITTLE JERK BECAUSE OF HIS FACE/MADE GREAT ART ON THE WALL WITH MOMMY’S NARS DRESSED TO KILL WHICH IS REALLY HARD TO FIND feels pretty false) and to value the appearance of calm over the true healing of wounds.
“Say you are sorry!” is also a reflexive posture when you, as a teacher or parent, are not sure of the exact malarkey and chicanery that led to little Susie having a bowl of Cheerios dumped on her head and just assume that the one without cheerios on her head is the villain. Many international conflicts have started thusly, I can assure you. This leaves the forced apologizer feeling pretty disoriented, as all of the stuff that culminated in the cheerios-to-the-head maneuver has been ignored, and that feels unfair. It also happens, a lot, at playgrounds when parents are embarrassed by what their little angels have done. It makes the parents feel better (and at least acknowledge that their kids are also occasionally maniacs) to have everyone do a nice round of the “I’m sorry” shuffle.
In my work with kiddos with developmental challenges, I often nix the “forced apology” as it can be very far from appropriate, especially when kids are unaware of their own behavior or unaware of its effect on other people. I try to apply that same thinking (again, when a kid is struggling with something, it’s an amazing opportunity to teach a new skill) to kids who are developing typically, but just struggling with their behavior. For those kids, I usually teach parents and teachers about using two strategies:
The repair strategy is what to do after an event that would typically inspire a forced apology. What I do is identify an event or series of events that will repair (or make steps toward repairing) the feelings or property of the damaged party. For example, in a preschool this week, one of my kiddos ripped up the art project of a classmate. I interrupted the “Susie 1, tell Susie 2 (Real talk: I am bad at pseudonyms.) that you are sorrrrrrryyyyy” because Susie 1 was already in the throes of a massive avoidant episode (pulling away, trying to hide, saying “no no no!”). Instead, I made sure that Susie 2 was getting heaps of attention from the teachers and the other kids and that Susie 1 was getting very little (both to allow her to re-group and to make sure she noticed how much attention her victim was getting). After Susie 1 was calmer, we sat and drew a cartoon of what happened (this is a strategy that I will get into in much more detail, as it is awesome) for some visual processing (often easier for kiddos in distress). We then determined that what Susie 2 needed to feel better was something to do with her art project. Eventually the repair that we came up with included making Susie 2 a special beautiful picture (that Susie 1 would spend her play time making) AND Susie 1’s entire WEEKLY ALLOTMENT OF PAPER. How awesome is this preschool that they have (generous) weekly allotments of paper? Therefore, Susie 2 had a loving and flattering (both eyes! 2 hands!) portrait to take home and all of Susie 1’s paper for the whole stinking week. The “I’m sorry,” if it needs to be tacked on, can happen after the actual repairs have taken place, giving it some oomph and meaning.
The rehearse strategy happens (hopefully) to avoid the need for the repair… You can use this strategy once you have identified situations that are difficult for your student/child. If Johnny 1 always hits Johnny 2 when they are in the sandbox, harness the power of Johnny 1’s love for the sandbox by rehearsing exactly how he should handle interacting with Johnny 2. You can use the visual projection/perspective taking (that I will talk about next time!) or just talk about what has happened in the past and then actually act out an awesome scenario of, say, Johnny 1 graciously ceding the blue shovel to Johnny 2 rather than whacking him with it. If something has been difficult in the past, put it on the list for rehearsal. It will be difficult again in the future unless you model for for kids what it is that you want and show the Johnny/Susie 1’s of the world that they have it in them to be cool.
So, my darling Susies and Johnnys:
If you don’t catch it before it happens, offer a repair instead of an immediate forced apology.
By using the repair strategy, you will be teaching empathy and exactly what happens when your child/student hurts another person.
By focusing on the repair, you are attaching value and meaning to a child’s actions—a way to make the “sorry” mean something. You are also giving them something constructive to do while (hopefully) feeling the shame that comes from hurting another person.
It is also a good idea that your child feels like they have to do something to get voted back on the island after some seriously sorrowful behavior.
The repair should make the other person feel better, be as related as possible to the offense, and make the offender make a serious effort or give up a privilege.
Some behavior consultants will advise you to talk through feelings with the offender and come up with why they did such a squirrely thing. Those dialogues are important, but I always focus more on the effect that the actions have on a friend or sibling. Save those “why” conversations for later, and zero in on the totally-not-OKness of whacking a friend.
If you can predict a difficult situation (a certain playmate, a certain toy, a certain time of day), take the time to act out (not just instruct or tell) a situation and a pleasant outcome.
This might take a few times, but can be very exciting for your child if she then uses the strategies you come up with.
You can be so very proud of her (and show her that!) making it more likely that she will remember this behavior and use it in the future.
As always, if you are very very worried about behavior or coping, check in with your pediatrician. And don’t bother to Netflix Love Story if you have not yet had the pleasure…Let me summarize: cute skirt, sass, love, Mitt/Ann Romney style poverty, leukemia, a big sorry from a mean dad, creepy theme music. Done.