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A Model for Apologies

Posted by on July 3, 2014

Round 1, fight!

Does this conversation sound familiar to you?

“Say sorry to your brother.”

“But he’s the one who–”

“Say it!” you insist, an edge of warning in your voice.

He huffs, rolls his eyes to the side and says flatly, “Sorry.”

“Say it like you mean it,” you demand.

“Sorrrrry,” he repeats, dragging out the word slowly with bulging eyes and dripping insincerity.

You sigh in defeat and turn to #2, “Now tell him you forgive him.”

It sure seems familiar to me. The author of a blog post entitled “A Better Way to Say Sorry” used that exchange to demonstrate how forcing apologies from children is counterproductive. I’ve read more than a few articles to that effect lately.  However, unlike some other articles on the topic, this one doesn’t suggest some goofy hippy solution like a peace circle. Instead, a simple script is presented as replacement for the pointless exchange above, and I’ll demonstrate, it’s been successfully applied for the better part of two millenia.

“I’m sorry for…

This is wrong because…

In the future, I will…

Will you forgive me?”

(Be sure to read the whole post, because there’s a clear explanation for each step there.) At first it seems a bit formulaic, but I’ve come to realize that’s not a bad thing. A lot of educational models have downplayed or rejected the importance of rote memorization. It seems to me, though, that abandoning memorization is a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. True, memorization doesn’t teach deep comprehension or internalization, but it helps immensely with making behaviors habitual.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

Think of all the daily routines we try to make habitual for our children. Think of all we have to do to get out of the house on time for activities (without forgetting important things), or of the intricate rituals of bedtime. Heck, even the games we play have rules that require frequent and repetitive practice to be followed automatically.

As I read the article and contemplated the importance of childhood ritual and memorization I had an epiphany. This proposed apology ritual – say what you’re sorry for, explain why it’s wrong, promise to do better in the future, and ask for forgiveness – was really familiar.

Real men frequently confess their sins.

The Sacrament of Confession!

The sequence is very similar, which surprises me, because I suspect it was produced in an entirely secular context. What do we Catholics do:

  • Confession of sins: You tell the priest what you did wrong.
  • Penance: The priest tells you how to make amends.
  • Act of contrition: You promise to (try to) not sin again.
  • Absolution: The priest, acting with God’s authority, forgives your sins.

Who knew that could be a model for children to apologize and forgive each other? Perhaps it should have occurred to me, but it didn’t. Now that I know about it, though, I need to put it in practice.

What do I need to do? First, I think I’ll type up the “script” and post it prominently in several places in my home. Then, I need to walk my kids through it whenever they get into squabbles. It’ll feel a bit awkward and forced at first, but with frequently application, it should become “second nature” (another concept from Aristotelian philosophy, by the way). Lastly, but certainly not of least importance, I need to get into the habit (There’s that word again!) of frequently going to confession. After all, how can I expect my children to learn contrition, repentance, and forgiveness if I don’t model those behaviors?

When was the last time you confessed?

No Catholic? No problem! You don’t need a priest to start making amends with your fellow man.

  1. Admit what you did wrong and how you hurt someone.
  2. Suggest or ask what you can do to heal the hurt, or at least ameliorate damage caused.
  3. Be contrite, and promise to work toward avoiding the mistakes that led to offense.
  4. Ask for forgiveness.
  5. Repeat as needed!

The other half of this script requires forgiving others when they show at least imperfect contrition. Since we’re not priests, we don’t get to experience the other half of sacramental confession. Still, as Christians we have good examples to follow in the admonition to forgive “seven times seventy times” , in the parable of the prodigal son, and other places. Even non-Christians have models of forgiveness, though, as it’s an important part of just about every major religion and philosophy. Anyhow, if we want our children to do it, we need to model it.

So, what are you waiting for? Get to it! 🙂