Genuine Apologies

Learning to give and receive apologies is a complex social skill. As a school counselor, I am often asked to give advice about having children apologize in school. Are there times when a teacher should require, facilitate, or even suggest an apology? And if so, what skills do children need in order to make a genuine apology?

While I don’t have easy answers to those complex questions, there’s one thing I am certain of: It’s rarely productive to force an apology. Many teachers know this, but for a variety of reasons we sometimes do it anyway. Here’s a personal example from a couple years ago:

I’m in the hallway with a small group of kindergarten boys, waiting for the last child to join our social skills group. When Joshua, new to the group, comes out of his classroom, Tony points at him and says loudly, “Why are you so small?” Joshua’s eyes well up with tears.

Time is tight and all eyes are on me to fix this problem. “That’s not how we talk to our friends, Tony,” I say.

“But he is!” Tony insists.

Feeling pressured, I say sternly, “Tony, you need to apologize to Joshua. You’ve hurt his feelings.” Tony glares at me. “I’m waiting . . .” I say impatiently.

“OK, sorry,” Tony says, rolling his eyes.

In this situation, my intentions were good, but forcing Tony to apologize was not helpful. It did not soothe Joshua’s feelings or help Tony take responsibility for his actions, and it may have taught the group that apologies are about moving on, not about making amends.

So what could I have done instead? First, I could have given everyone, including myself, some time to cool off before trying to fix this problem. So often we feel pressured to resolve conflicts right away that we skip this important step. If I could rewind and do it differently, here’s what I would have said: “Tony, it looks like your words were hurtful . . . walk ahead to our first stopping point and wait while I check in with Joshua.” Then to Joshua: “It looks like your feelings were hurt. When we get down to the playroom, we’ll work on fixing this.”

Later I’d check in with Tony alone to help him understand the effect of his behavior. “You’re right, Tony, that Joshua is smaller than most kindergartners. But everyone comes in different sizes,” I might begin. “I know you didn’t mean to hurt Joshua’s feelings but you did. Can you think of anything you could say or do to help fix this?”

If Tony couldn’t come up with any ideas, I might say, “Did you mean to hurt Joshua’s feelings?” If no, I’d suggest, “You could tell him that. It might help.”

I’ve come to learn that children need specific coaching in giving a genuine apology. In addition to help with seeing the effect of their actions, they often need help with finding the right words to apologize. I’ve given children sample phrases to use, such as:

  • “I am sorry. That was my fault.”
  • “I didn’t mean to do that. Sorry.”
  • “So sorry. Is there something I could do to help?”

Similarly, I find that children need a repertoire of phrases for receiving an apology, something other than “it’s okay,” which can feel rote and insincere (Is it really okay that someone teased you or knocked over your project?). For example:

  • “I accept your apology.”
  • “Thank you for telling me.”
  • “I forgive you.”
  • “We’re still friends.”

I still have many questions when it comes to the complex business of apologies. How do we help children develop the empathy needed for genuine apologies? What about situations where apologies are overused? And are there ever times when a rote apology is sufficient? For now, I’ll continue searching for those answers while at the same time helping children learn the skills they need to make and receive genuine apologies.

Amy Wade is the school counselor at Canandaigua Primary School, Canandaigua, New York. She is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher.

Tags: Apologies, Misbehavior