Sorry is a big big deal for me.(Maybe you noticed?)
In part this is because when I was little, my mom told me to lie when it came to sorry. She thought she was teaching me how to express something effectively. But instead I heard it as 'pretend you mean it'. She said, "Say it like you mean it," after I would mutter the demanded apology with anger and bit-off ends of words.
I very clearly remember standing on the back porch, feet on the cool concrete, glowering as she stood next to my little brother (the two of them on one side of the line, me on the other). She had a hand on his shoulder, and he had tears running down his face but that look of triumph at the same time - she was on his side. My body was locked in fury I was now trying to suppress in the face of impending greater trouble. The memory starts just after I'd said sorry the first time. I could still feel the taste of it in my mouth, and the echo of it in my ears, expressing exactly how un-sorry I was. I'd hit my brother because he was being a jerk. I wasn't sorry, I was angry. I was feeling righteous because he deserved to be hit and I'd hit him. Things were even, dammit! And now here comes Mom, taking his part, making life unbalanced again.
And then she said it. "Say it again, like you mean it." Not what I really needed to hear, which was: "Stop and calm down and look at him crying and assess whether your answer to the problem was appropriate and whether you could consider a better course of action ... and NOW consider if you regret using your hands to solve this problem instead of words. Are you there now? Yes? Now what do you need to say to your brother from here?" If she'd said that, it would have brought me to regret, and connection, and a true apology, and a better relationship. But that's not what she asked. She asked me to pretend I was sorry, and make it sound convincing.
Even at that age, I understand that it was a shortcut. I understand that she was tired of refereeing our disputes - him biting me, me hitting him, him trying to hit me and me holding him off with my greater arm length and laughing at his attempts to get payback and then laughing harder as his fury increased with his sense of powerlessness, only to cycle around again as he got payback in other ways. Our dynamic fed back into the power loop with the parents, making him more protected, encouraging them to make up for the love lost between us (at times) by favoring him with more gestures of love, tilting the balance more out of kilter and increasing my need to punish him for the imbalance of affection, feeding both my jealousy and my sense of worthlessness - because he never really deserved my fury, but I couldn't direct it at the parents with any safety. He was a golden child, and even when I hated that fact, I knew it wasn't his fault.
Even as I steamed over being asked to lie about being sorry, I knew my mom was trying to work a way through to getting us to at least function together, but she was overwhelmed, tired, there wasn't anything left for this. She was working on her own emotional recovery at the time. There was not much left to go around.
Regardless, I needed something else there. It was such a crystalline awareness that the moment stuck as profoundly important, seared into my memory. I knew that this was not the answer I needed, it wasn't the answer he needed, and it wasn't the answer she needed. And I had no idea how to get where we all needed to go. I was, after all, about five years old, maybe six.
Being told to apologize before I felt it, and to do so as if I felt it was a lie that my brother and I both knew was a lie. Saying it sweetly made it no more the truth than it was the first way. I remember losing respect for my mom when she said that. I knew that she didn't care if I felt sorry, she just wanted me to sound like I felt it so she could go back to whatever it was she had been doing. I also knew that saying it as a sweetly stated lie also stole the triumph from my brother, because I wasn't actually made to feel remorseful. All it gained him was another instance of Mom Is On My Side, but no resolution of the injustice of having been hit.
As a result of that memory, we don't enforce 'say sorry' as a first step in apologies. There is stuff that happens before sorry that goes by in a flash for adults, and we draw out those layers in advance of the words. We tend to say, 'please solve this problem,' and if they can't remember the steps, we cue them in a variety of ways (two main variants), depending on how they're acting:
- If someone seems alarmed that they caused an injury or hurt feelings, but isn't doing anything about it, we say: Ask them what they need to make it better. It's not just about the words of apology, but making amends, caretaking, and reconnecting by being of service to the injured party. At a certain age (I think around 5) the injured party may try to make the amends be punitive - give me your favorite toy, let me tear up your drawing, something hurtful back. But an ear on that and a quick, 'try again,' gets a remorseful look back, and then they start at the right point. Before and after that, it generally works without too much adjusting. Provided they're okay with the resolution, I'm okay with whatever they resolve (I do eyeball for whether the one apologizing is overdoing it, too - no giving away precious things for a bumped head is required, or really allowed - they have to try again for that, too). Usually it is much better than what I'd come up with, and often when they work it through this way, they end up being generous with each other. If the demand is high, we may have to coach - say, if one asks for a turn with the other's favorite toy, we coach through a negotiation of whether that is acceptable for the level of hurt, whether the toy is too precious to share, etc. Usually, it has worked out to be a fair balance with remarkably little effort. And sometimes, the answer is genuinely 'I don't need anything' - either they aren't ready to be in relationship yet and want some time to get themselves there without help, or they recognize the remorse and/or the accidental nature of the event, and are already okay with the other person.
- If someone does not seem bothered by having caused harm or unhappiness (especially if they seem gleeful or triumphant that they have done so), we ask them to look at each other. Just look. Look at your sister's face. Or listen to them crying if they are not close enough to look well. At certain ages (2-2 1/2 or so), we get refusals to do this, because they know that their triumph will die if they see how much the other person was hurt, and they want their triumph. They don't want to empathize, dammit! We just wait a moment and then ask again.
We also allow them to take a little time with it. Kids don't snap through their emotions in the whip-crack way adults often do. It is a longer, deeper, more powerful rush, and they're in the midst of that flood, not riding it. Asking them to get out of that state of being and just observe it is like asking someone caught in a flash flood to just swim over to the side. They need a helicopter and someone dropping them a life ring on a rope - and dropping it right next to them, at that.
Which brings me to:
We recognize that there was a reason for their initial injurious action. Whatever happened didn't happen in a vacuum. It is part of a long string of events, and an expression of a true need. Not usually a useful expression if we're talking 'someone got hurt', but a real and valid issue underneath that action. We try to recognize that if there is a pattern of one hurting another, then there is another need unmet in there that needs to be addressed. Kids can be cruel, but they are cruel because of insecurity, or hurt, or jealousy, or fear, or some other emotion that is the result of an unmet need. They need to feel confident, or successful, or precious, or skillful. Sometimes they just need a chance to be in charge of the direction of play. I can't count how many times we had a round of apology because one kid was running the direction of play and not letting the other have a say in how the story went. The imagination gets going and leaves no room for collaboration, and runs over the other child's imagination in the process. Rule-breaking is another, especially with the age gap we have - the understanding of the rules of play differs at different ages. At some ages it is 'the rules are whatever structure allows me to win, and can be changed until I win', and later it is 'the rules are how we play fairly,' and later it is 'the rules are how we determined who won'. Cross two of those, and you'll end up with a fight, and sometimes that means someone gets hurt.
Taking the full process of the apology as important - not just the symbolic statement - prevents the kids from tossing off 'I'm sorry' like that's all that's required. It keeps them from just rubber-stamping the interaction without having to assess their own behavior. It requires they learn new ways to interact. Social rules require the words at the front, but kids learn that from modeling, and the ability to flip through the process at good speed comes with time and practice. From my (probably over-sensitive) perspective, it is more important to teach what triggers the words, walk through the steps that aren't the actual words themselves, because that's less obvious, and in the end I think it's the non-verbal part that is more important to the resolution.
What we're doing is modeling the process broken out in steps, with instructions. Adults tend to do these other steps, either at the time or later. But they're internal, the way calming ourselves down when we're angry is internal.
Is it essential that this process be followed? No. Many people learn how to apologize by the time they grow up. But as a culture we tend to still hold onto the hurt after the words go by, and many people harbor those hurts as wounds and resentment, because the underlying issue was not addressed, or wasn't clearly handled, or was addressed tangentially. I'd rather put the effort into coaching it now than just cross my fingers and hope they're the kind of person who figures out how to apologize effectively after they grow up.
Besides, as much effort as it takes to coach them, it takes way less energy to do it this way, and the positive feedback to me when I see them do it well is a pleasure. Last night, it was Miss R insisting that she was the only one who could watch tv, and Mr B asking nicely, and being rejected unkindly (with some screaming, sigh), and leaving the room in tears of anger and hurt, and Miss R (coached only to listen to him and picture how he felt) saying sorry, asking him with real warmth to please come back, and yes of course you can sit on the bed but could you please sit over by the pillows? Her need to not feel crowded - still handled. His need to be included (and be comfortable) also handled.
I didn't have any reason to say, 'say it like you mean it.' She meant it.