“SAY YOU’RE SORRY.”
Adults often insist on children making apologies, thinking that having to say “sorry” is part of learning not to repeat a transgression. Forced apologies don’t usually improve behavior, and if you’ve ever been the recipient of a reluctant apology, you know it’s not a heart-warming experience.
Although teachers may ask children if they would like to say “sorry” after hurting someone physically or emotionally, our policy is not to force verbal apologies at our school. Telling children they have to say “sorry” when they’re not causes resentments.
However, we do want children to repair their hurtful actions. One way we encourage students to make amends is to ask them to write a note and decorate it with their art. (Parents and teachers can help preschoolers dictate the words.) We have found that the process of writing often stimulates the mind, and allows reflection and sometimes regret. It’s the artistic element, creating a drawing for someone, that almost always engages the heart.
Of course, before even approaching the issue of apology, it’s imperative for children to stop injurious activity and try to reset their body and state of mind. Teachers often implement a consequence, without giving any negative energy to the situation. It might be leaving a game, rebuilding materials the child has knocked down, or listening to the other person’s feelings and perspective. Doing something for the injured party, even if it’s just hearing their feelings, helps both people to repair. In the world, this is called restorative justice.
As adults we also want to acknowledge that apologizing without defending our actions is hard at any age. Expressing doubt about their sincerity by asking questions like “Do you really mean it?” works against their abilities to actually feel remorse. When a child spits out the word “sorry,” we can ask, “Do you want to say more?” “Do you want to draw a picture about it?”
Recently a third grade girl wrote a letter apologizing to Vince d’Assis, one of our co-principals. It turned into a poem and artistic rendering. The last few lines reveal how deeply she thought about what had happened and how important Vince’s non-reactive response was in allowing her to feel safe sharing her feelings:
It came like a sudden wave.
Anger washed part-over.
So I’m glad the kindness you gave
Gave me a chance to start over.