Should you make your kids apologize?

I was sent an article on this topic some time ago, but have lost the link– I think it must have been this one. The gist was no, don’t force them to apologize if they don’t feel sorry. I replied to the person who sent it to me with these rather rambling thoughts: 

 I think someone there [in comments on the article] said the author was treating kids the way you would adults– I think so too, or at least that she makes no allowances for kids of different ages. It’s oddly expecting too much of kids in one way, but in another it’s expecting too little of them.

I think you [the person who sent me the article] said something about ‘ we -should- feel ashamed of doing something wrong’ and that’s several whole big topics right there.

One, there are no ‘shoulds’ about feelings….feelings are whatever they are, and come from all kinds of places in our nature and environment and past experience. You have to work either with them or despite them. If the desired emotion in another person (such as being sincerely sorry enough to apologize for a harmful action) isn’t there, this really doesn’t matter one bit. No-one can control any one else’s emotions– heck, we can hardly control our own most of the time. What matters is whether you can come to an agreement with them about actions and behaviour.

If our own emotions are out of whack with our core beliefs about how we should behave, we have to sit down, take a deep breath, and do our best to behave in accord with those beliefs. We may fail, even fail spectacularly, but we have to try.

Two, to continue from the above, apologies and other manners are not primarily about the sincere feelings (at the moment of apology or at any other time) of the person apologizing. If we are forced by the government to pay our taxes to support the needy, it doesn’t change our feelings, positive or negative, about the needy, but the needy still get fed and that is a good thing. If we give even a little bit voluntarily to help others, that is even better, as it shows we have learned it is not all about us. Finally, if we give both voluntarily and sacrificially, we have at last begun to turn in the direction of being transformed into the image of Christ.

As for our money management, so for our manners. Manners are like our tithe to the Church– we haven’t yet begun to act Christ-like, but we have taken a baby step in the right direction, and good has been done to others whether we do it from pure motives or not. We ourselves will benefit more when we learn to do it wholeheartedly, but that doesn’t mean we should wait till we feel like it to use please, thank you and sorry.

Three, shame and guilt are not the same thing. And here we get into a really big and complex topic. Guilt is a sign that we did something wrong (probably– false guilt is yet another wrinkle on things), or at least caused some kind of harm even if inadvertently, and it is fundamentally a hopeful emotion. 

Yes, hopeful! I think the world is accustomed to seeing guilt as a negative emotion. That is not in accord with the traditional Christian teaching, though.

Guilt feelings can be dealt with by apologizing and making reparation. The bigger the offence, the harder this is and the longer it takes, but it is freeing. Look at the Apostle Paul. Do we think that after his conversion he never had another thought about the harm done to Christians due to his persecuting them before? People were martyred thanks to his actions. Their blood was on his hands. He spends the rest of his life neither paralyzed by the shame of what he had done, nor trying to reject the divine revelation and run from his guilt, but instead going full speed ahead in the opposite direction from his original life. He still writes in his epistles of how he is the chief of sinners, and he sure means it– but he does not dwell on it. Instead he keeps busy doing good. Grace in Christ has set him free, but in Orthodoxy we don’t believe in -cheap- grace– it cost Christ everything. The Scriptures set up for an example the leper who returned to give thanks, not the one who went on his way without a care for God’s goodness in healing him.

But for some people, shame may sometimes follow on after guilt, and that’s where the trouble comes from. Our fallen human nature doesn’t do well at either separating out our own guilt and shame, or with communicating about them or projecting them onto others.

I said guilt is a hopeful emotion because you can take action about it. But if it is not attended to, it can morph into shame. A person oppressed by shame does not have hope for changing themselves– even if what is actually said to them is ‘that was a bad thing you did’, what they end up  hearing is ‘you are a bad person’. There are several ways they can handle this, and one of them is to reject responsibility for any actions or others’ response to those actions that might make them feel guilt, which they can’t distinguish from shame. Such people can never apologize because if they ever admit they did something wrong, because for them it is equal to saying they are worthless. They defiantly state “I am what I am”, and begin to make all their own worst qualities out to be virtues, desperately trying to silence objections from the rest of the world and from their own nagging conscience. They insist anything wrong with their behaviour is all in other people’s perception, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Or, they become miserable victims who feel they can never do anything right. Neither of these is the way the Apostle Paul dealt with his guilt.  

So I think the question is about -how- to teach kids to apologize. Sometimes an apology is required whether the person, kid or adult, ‘feels’ sincere or not, or how can we hold anyone in society accountable for anything? How can we lead kids into genuine empathy for others if we make it okay for them to let themselves be governed by their own ego-defending feelings rather than by polite and considerate standards of behaviour like please and thank you and sorry?

I think maybe shame is what the author of the article is worried about regarding forcing her children to apologize. She doesn’t know how to separate guilt and shame, particularly for a child. And that is difficult, all right, and an ongoing project. A first step is to concentrate on the behaviour– “that was a bad thing to do”, or hopefully something more empathic– “how would you feel if somebody took your toy away?”  I think it works with positive things too– not saying to the kid, ‘you were good’ or ‘you were bad’, but “you worked very hard at keeping quiet in church”  or “it wasn’t very thoughtful to run like that so that you knocked over that little kid.” A lot of this depends on the stage of comprehension a kid has. But young kids do learn things really well by rote, so saying please and thank you and sorry should just be reinforced all the time. The comprehension will come.

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3 responses to “Should you make your kids apologize?

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. I think learning how to apologize is like learning how to write thank-you notes: it’s not necessarily a fun task, but it definitely comes in handy, and you can be well thought-of when you can accomplish it successfully.

    When I was growing up, there were specific steps to an apology, basically:
    Say you’re sorry and mean it.
    Say what you’re sorry for. (“Sorry that _you_ did such-and-so” didn’t cut it. One had to take responsibility: “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings” would work.)
    Ask what you can do to make it better. (And sometimes there wasn’t anything.)
    Do what you can to make it better.

    One’s own *feelings* didn’t matter in whether or not to make an apology. If someone else was hurting because of something I did, even if I didn’t intend the action or the consequence, it was still considered polite to acknowledge that I had made a mistake and that I would show good will by trying my best to make amends.

    (Of course, there were times when I had to sit and think, long and hard, about how to apologize for something I wasn’t *exactly* sorry for, but, then again, someone was hurting in some way, and that needed to be addressed, even if it was just “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt” or “I’m sorry I took the last cookie and you didn’t get any.”)

  3. presbyteraanonyma

    thanks for the comment, Presvytera Magda. I think you put your finger on it when you notice that this is ‘not a fun task’. Things that are not fun are definitely given short shrift in our society, no matter how important they are…

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