Sorry doesn’t help if a person mutters it quickly and walks away. There are better ways to make one person feel better and the other regret it.
Yom Kippur is the one majestic day of the year on which we’re absolved of all our sins. But, the Torah cautions that only one who sought and received forgiveness from those he’d wronged merits to be forgiven by Hashem. Apologizing, therefore, is an essential part of the process. The apology the Torah expects of us is not a mere show of words; it’s real, heartfelt admittance and regret, one that leaves the wronged party feeling validated and willing to forgive.
As people, we expect others to apologize to us in this way. As parents, we are obligated to teach our children how to do just that. While it’s equally important to teach our children how to let go of a grudge and forgive (a topic for another article), raising them with an understanding of how to apologize is a crucial component of their development into caring, respectful, Torah-true individuals.
You know the scenario: At a family gathering, your sister-in-law Chana makes a grand announcement about something in your life you’d asked her to keep secret. After your name is finally off the table, Chana suddenly remembers your request to keep it private—a half-hour too late. Later in the evening, when you’ve gone through stages of fury, embarrassment, hurt, anger, and whatnot, your phone buzzes with a one-word “apology” from her: “Sorry.”
A curt message like this one is the classic apology that hurts more than it heals. It may leave the offended party feeling not only the lingering hurt of the unpleasant incident but also deeply slighted that the perpetrator has shrugged off all responsibility of her wrongdoing. Isn’t it ironic, then, that we teach our children to do just that?
After a long day at cheder, Mendy walks through the door to find his brand new box of crayons scattered across the living room floor, some of the crayons already bereft of their sharpened points. He comes to Mommy in tears, upset at his 3-year-old sister Rochel for messing with his treasure.
Desperate to douse the damage, Mommy tells Rochel, who is totally oblivious to the deep damage she’s wrought, “say I’m sorry to Mendy.” And while the kid has no idea what she’s saying, she mumbles along. When Mendy still doesn’t calm down, an already exasperated Mommy turns to her son and says, “Didn’t you hear she said she was sorry?”
While there’s no question that every iota of pain the hurt party endured was decreed from Shamayim, the perpetrator has no excuse for not doing the proper teshuva. And as hurtful as the above situation may be to Mendy, the hurt only increases if the perpetrator is mature enough to understand what he did but doesn’t feel guilty and was simply forced into apologizing by the parent.
However, teaching children to mumble words that carry such weight is not teaching them the essence of apology at all. On the contrary, when children who cannot yet grasp the concept of feeling regret, or children who do not feel guilty for what they did, are instructed to apologize, they are not only taught to lie, but also to see apologizing as a social construct—something we do just to get the situation over and done with.
So how can we teach our children to be those individuals who do mean it when they say, “I’m sorry”? The idea is that the child should learn to associate words of apology with the feeling of regret. This is the only form of true apology, the only form that will leave the hurt party feeling understood and willing to forgive. Therefore, a child can only apologize sincerely when:
1. He exhibits emotional readiness to experience the feeling of regret and to undertake not to commit the wrongdoing in the future.
2. He regrets his actions.
Does this mean that if these two conditions are not present the wronged child won’t have an opportunity to be validated for feeling hurt? Certainly not. Precisely because the perpetrator is unable to apologize sincerely, the hurt child is in need of a great dose of empathy. In such cases, the parent should be the one to step in to ease the hurt child’s feelings. Sit with the child as she cries out her pain, offering the appropriate gestures that exhibit your true concern for her (such as stroking her hair, wiping her tears, saying things like, “Wow! That really hurts, right?”) Avoid mentioning the other sibling; this is not about him, it’s about the child who’s hurting.
If you’re blessed with a family of two or more children, it’s safe to assume that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to teach your children the power of a proper apology in your own home (raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of sibling rivalry :)). An especially golden opportunity to teach this is when a child feels awful for what she did (the other kid is bleeding, bruised, etc.) Utilize the situation as a teaching moment and say, “Look how bad you feel now. Does it bother you that you did this to your brother? Right you never want to push him down the stairs again? What would you like to say to your brother now?” Instead of instructing the child to apologize, help him to access his own feeling of regret and to act upon it independently.
Under normal circumstances, a child who is guided in this way will end up offering a sincere apology, promising never to do it again. (Since part of the apology process is making a commitment for the future, it’s unrealistic for us to have our kids make commitments never to do the regular sibling rivalry stuff such as teasing or kicking.) Not only will the hurt party accept such an apology, but all other family members will gain a true appreciation for the forgiveness process. When applicable, if a parent apologizes in this way, it profoundly impacts a child’s trust in the ability to forgive and be forgiven.
A child who learns to associate apologizing with feelings of regret and a sincere commitment to change will, with the help of Hashem, grow into the understanding, empathetic adult we all want to be around. If she will ever have to say “I’m sorry” to her sister-in-law, I’d bet it won’t be a one-word text message.