Disagreeing with Elton John

Although I appreciate his sentiment, as well as most of his music, I have to disagree with Elton John about one thing: Sorry does not seem to be the hardest word. It is what I hastily utter most times that I accidentally bump my cart into someone else's at the grocery store. Or when I interrupt someone -- usually when I have no opportunity to get a word in edgewise and admittedly feel justified in doing so! 

Truly sorry, I too often am not. 

Most of the time that I rapidly utter the phrase "I'm sorry" it is not to express some deep emotion or remorse. It's frequently used in a downright trite manner, with little meaning or true emotion communicated.

When I am deeply apologetic about something I have done -- which happens more often than I would like to admit -- far more than two simple words are called for. Included is acknowledgement of my responsibility and the impact of my offensive behavior, at the very least.

“I'm sorry” is what we often urge kids to say when we want them to acknowledge that they’ve done something wrong. Well, hang on…If that’s what we’re looking for, then why not encourage them to do just that? Instead of instructing them to utter two possibly-arbitrary words, we can teach them how to genuinely express something deep and meaningful.

Stuck in this “Sorry!” rut.

Working with youngsters over time, I observed far too many instances of kiddos using the phrase “I’m sorry” to clear themselves of culpability and quickly move on to their preferred activity…usually at the urging of a nearby adult. A brief check-in with the victim of each offense usually revealed the same truth: “I don’t think he’s really sorry.”

Even preschoolers see through this sorry façade!

So what do we do??

Start with the end in mind: Identify the real goal in these situations.

Most families value relationships -- developing, maintaining, and restoring healthy relationships with one another and those outside the home. When a conflict occurs, one serious concern is the relational damage that may result. 

Therefore, the goal is reconciling and repairing the relationship, which goes beyond clearing oneself by uttering a quick, even meaningful, apology.

We can raise conscientious kids who appreciate and value relationships by encouraging them in times of conflict to:

  1. Take responsibility for their part, actions, and contribution.

  2. Acknowledge the impact of their actions on others.

  3. Validate the others’ feelings and experience.

  4. Figure out how to make things right.

We can make things right by apologizing…or not.

The beauty in step 4 of this process is that it allows the child to creatively problem solve, empathizing with the other person by asking or determining what would actually mend any (practical and/or relational) damage that’s been done.

  • If an item has been damaged, perhaps he offers to do his best to repair it. Help him find the materials he needs (i.e. tape, glue), then let him work to mend it.

  • If trust has been damaged, encourage a conversation about how trust can be rebuilt. This does not happen instantaneously, as we all know. Talk nonjudgmentally with kids about how rebuilding trust between people takes both time and repeated efforts to make things right.

Apologizing is not a penalty. It is not a penance.

Instead of telling children “Say I’m sorry”, let’s walk with them through the process of engaging in healthy reconciliation with those around them. Without judging, guilting, or shaming them*.

Let’s focus on the deeper meaning behind the acts of apologizing, asking for and providing forgiveness, and making things right. Let’s trust our children to identify what they need and what they desire, what is meaningful and true to them.

Trust that they know – perhaps better than we do – what is needed in a given situation in order to make things right again.

*Please reach out if examples of nonjudgmental language and phrases would be helpful.

Clair White