JOPLIN, Mo. —
She stormed away from the table and shouted, "I said I was sorry!"
Her big sister stared at a now-scattered heap of puzzle pieces, heartbroken and angry. All of her hard work had just been accidentally ruined.
They were at an impasse, and those frequently require parental mediation. Sadly for me, I couldn't tell exactly where it had all gone wrong. It seemed like the right things had happened: After an accidental transgression, there'd been an apology. The right people had said the right things (if a teensy bit too forcefully), but nothing had been solved.
And that was the root: A problem remained. The puzzle that had been dismantled was still dismantled.
"Listen," I said. "Your sister probably doesn't want to hear that you're sorry. She just wishes her puzzle wasn't messed up."
This flies in the face of all I've ever known. The possibility that an apology isn't the most important thing after an accident sounds odd to me. It sounds like bad manners. It sounds selfish and tactless. It kind of scares me to tell my kids that their apology isn't helping.
But for preschoolers and young elementary-age kids, the apology really isn't helping. They don't usually have much of a working knowledge of empathy at this age. The physical act of making it better doesn't happen by uttering "I'm sorry." And it's that physical act that will begin to teach the lessons of empathy and actual remorse.
When our kids accidentally cause trouble for a friend or sibling, a forced apology teaches almost nothing. There's something rote and suspicious about a robotic apology, especially because our kids aren't always truthfully sorry.
If we only teach our kids to give lip service in the form of apologies, there's an important chunk of the lesson missing. The words themselves are meaningless until our kids can show with their actions that they intend to remediate the situation, so both parts of the equation need to be taught together. If an apology is good, helping to fix the mistake is infinitely better.
Our little ones need to see how true apologies work through show and tell. They need to see us taking responsibility for our mistakes as much as we preach the need for them to do the same. We need to model the right ways to be helpful after causing an accident. And as often as we feel the urge to tell our kids to "say you're sorry," we must also remind them to make it better.
Suggest that they clean up the mess. Fix the tower. Replace the spilled drink. Hug their hurt friend.
Or more simply and to the point, you can just step back and say, "It looks like your accident caused a problem. How are you going to fix it?" Because regret isn't really what we want our kids to feel, after all. It's the knowledge that they can be problem-solvers in the wake of their mistakes that will turn them into compassionate, helpful adults.
Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.blog spot.com.