As a former elementary teacher, I used to cringe when I overheard adults demanding, “Say you’re sorry!” to a child after he’d been involved a scuffle with another kid. I couldn’t stomach the obvious lack of remorse when the child parroted out the phrase, and I worried about the loss of the greater lesson of making things right after committing a wrong.
So instead, I used to pose a question, “How can you make it better?” And let the children mull it over before they skipped away to help a friend up, rebuild a fallen structure of blocks, and often apologize of their own will. It was special to watch and I felt certain I’d never direct a child to robotically apologize.
Then I had a baby. Who became a toddler.
And toddlers are a whole other animal.
Toddlers bump, push, scream, and throw things. And they have NO IDEA what I’m talking about when I ask them how they can make it better.
So I realized that it’s my responsibility to teach my children that skill. Toddlers are brand new to our language and our culture. They’re like aliens in a new world, or not yet civilized mini-cavemen. They need to be taught explicitly.
They need to learn to say the words, “I’m sorry,” when it’s appropriate, and they need to practice it a lot.
So when my daughter grabs a toy from a small boy who then cries, I tell her, “He was holding that toy, so you need to give it back. Say, ‘here you go.’ He’s crying. Say ‘I’m sorry.’”
And when she bites my cheek and I shriek in pain, I tell her, “We only bite our food. Say, ‘Sorry, Mommy.’ Now, give it a kiss.”
And slowly, I’m able to let go of the tight structure with which I’m teaching and I can begin to ask her, “What can you do to make it better?”
At just age two, she sees a toy she wants in another child’s hands and poses the question, “Can I play with that?” When a toy drum is snatched from her grasp, she says, “I’m playing with that right now.” In moments of frustration her fork careens through the air, and then she dutifully retrieves it, deposits it into the sink, and wipes up any food that hit the floor along with it. She says “Sorry” and “Are you okay?” when she hurts another person. Then she plants a kiss on the injured area.
My daughter is empowered by the language and cultural norms I’ve taught her by telling her exactly what to say and do. How else could she know? Of course, I also model the behavior I want to impart to her. That’s a given. But I also am not afraid to give specific commands when she’s facing a moment she’s unfamiliar with.
When she reaches elementary school, maybe her teacher will help her solve her peer conflict by posing guiding questions that help her solve it on her own. Or maybe the teacher will tell her to apologize. If so, she’ll come to the table armed with the knowledge of what “I’m sorry” really means, and hopefully use it genuinely. And maybe her teacher will be too busy to dive into the world of children’s social conflicts.
I want her to prepare her for this possibility—because it’s common. I want her to have a collection of strategies up her sleeve for those times when it’s up to her to get along with others. And one of those strategies is certainly the words, “I’m sorry.”