Sunday, November 6, 2011

NaBloPoMo: Say Sorry!

In 2007 I first heard the notion that we should not tell/force children to say sorry.  It was vaguely explained (or vaguely understood) that it is forcing a disingenuous response from the children - that they might not actually be sorry when we are telling them to say it and that they might become resentful or jaded when we force them to say things they do not mean.  I nodded my head and tried not to fall back on that deeply rooted reaction to transgressions.  "That hurts when you hit," I would say, or "we do NOT hit."  And off the hitter would scamper, leaving the hit child crying or angry and me frustrated that the hitter was "getting away with hitting."

At the lecture by Kathleen Duvall, she revisited this confusing concept, and it seemed much clearer the way she explained it (both philosophically and practically), and perhaps I was just a more open to hearing something different this time around.  She made the case that we have to consider our real goals for the children - do we want a pavlovian "sorry" response to crying?  do we want children to "use words" when they have a problem?  what words do we want them to use - have we modeled the words to them and do we continue to encourage the use of clear language?  do we want our children to care for people enough to work toward a solution to a problem?  There is so much to consider!  I certainly do not want my sons to feel helpless if their needs are not being met, or to spit out a response "because I said so" while they continue to stew with anger.  I also do not want my children to willy-nilly say "sorry" about everything:  "Excuse me, may I pass?" "Oh, sorry!,"  "Why did you wear that shirt?" "oh, sorry," we live in a culture of people who are sorry for everything and nothing all at once!  As parents, we feel that we are expected to tell our children to "say sorry" at the playground if they bump another child, or we have a guff if another parent does not tell her child to apologize to our child.

What, then, are we supposed to do?  Our goal is to have conscious and considerate children, so we have to model the way to be conscious and considerate and guide them in the way to care for others.  For example, my son pushes his baby brother and grabs all the toys away to a far corner of the room, leaving the baby crying and toy-less.  There are a few things to consider (in the instant... I know... more challenging parenting work!):
  1. Why did Dominic push the baby and take the toys?  Is there a need that is not being met - to have space to play, to have respect for the work he did to set up the train track?
  2. What need is Liam trying to meet as he encroaches on Dominic's play - relationship with his brother, inclusion in play?
  3. What is going on right now?  Liam is hurt (emotionally or physically) and Dominic is herding his toys into a coral away from the baby instead of playing with the toys or the baby.
  4. What needs to happen next?
    • to meet Liam's needs:  to feel included, preferably by his brother, to get some comfort for his hurt feelings
    • to meet Dominic's needs:  a way to play with security that his toys will not be destroyed by baby-zilla, to build a good relationship with his baby brother
Now that I've considered all that, my goal is to help Dominic to comfort his brother, "what does Liam need to feel better?  Can you pat his back?  Could you choose one toy to offer Liam?"  If Dominic is not ready for any of that, I will model the way to care for someone who is hurt "Liam, you look hurt/sad, I am going to rub your back.  Do you need someone to play with?  Let's roll this ball together, Dominic needs space to play with that other toy set."  Once Liam is no longer upset, I can talk to Dominic.  I want to validate and empathize with his feelings of frustration or anger, and model that there is a different way to address those feelings (instead of pushing):  "Were you so sad/angry/frustrated when Liam wrecked your train track?  You needed space to work, and he knocked down the bridge.  You wanted Liam to move away and give you space."  I'll also point out that Liam had different needs:  "Liam wanted to play with his big brother because he loves you and looks up to you, he needs to feel included.  Is there a way he can play with you/ is there a toy from this set that you could offer him so he feels included?"  If that is way too much, perhaps I'd just leave it at, "you really need some space to fix your toy right now," but more often than not, Dominic is very willing to care for his brother and even if he cannot share the toy, he is usually willing to find another toy for Liam to play with.

So instead of ignoring all of that stuff that was going on (feelings, needs, relationship, etc) by just saying, "you say you are sorry right now and give him that toy," or "you go to a time-out while your brother plays here," we addressed all of those needs and feelings and included all involved parties in reaching a solution.  If there was a real injury, Dominic could certainly go get some ice from the freezer, or a washcloth to wipe a scrape - children are so attuned to the needs and comfort of others when they are just given a chance!  With older children it is very helpful to give each a chance to talk, and elicit the feelings/needs from the children because they have some vocabulary and understanding of what is going on.  By giving each child a time to speak and listen to the other, the children gain experience in listening to others - once they each vent "what happened," they can be asked, "what is the solution? do you have any ideas?"  For older children, it is even worthwhile to ask questions like, "what could have prevented this problem?  what could we do differently in the future to care for each other's needs?"  Often with the older crowd there is a simple misunderstanding, that needs further communication instead of an absolute judgement/sentence from an adult.

Working with children at the elementary level this year, in an after-school setting, I've observed that a pretty "stock" answer to those questions is "I don't know," followed by the expectation that I will dole out a judgement of who is right, who is wrong, who has to stop doing xyz, and who gets to continue along, etc.  For a while I was exasperated talking these things through, until I started asking the children to take a moment to think, "because I don't have a solution to every problem, and I know they can work it out."  It amazes me the solutions they come up with and how nemeses can turn into friends after just a few minutes of working through an issue.  If I take these observations to the larger social arena, it isn't difficult to notice areas that people want and expect someone else to "fix" an issue while they completely shirk personal responsibility - the heads of major banks participate in risky lending practices, cost us billions in tax dollars, and then continue to have our support in our patronage of their businesses!  It is as though we are conditioned to accept a "sorry" without any real reparation.  We allow someone else to "handle it" instead of taking a proactive approach to our needs, and even worse, we assume that because someone utters the word "sorry" at the ring of a bell, that the truly mean what they are saying.  I'd be inclined to think that actions are far more meaningful than words, as Eliza Doolittle put it, "SHOW ME!"

Perhaps tomorrow I'll ponder the ways some of these strategies work in a classroom setting - in some ways it is more challenging, while in other ways it is much easier because of the assistance we get from the children.


  1. Renee, I'm so incredibly happy that you took on this challenge! I am enthralled with your posts! I often think about these situations (even though our little one is only 8 months old and an only child at the moment). Can I get a pocket version of you to keep around the house?

    Mark found this link, and I think you'll be very interested to watch it.
    I'd love to know what you think.
    Alison Gopnik: What do babies think?

  2. Ha! I do have to say, though, that this is not how it goes down 100% of the time (maybe not even 30% of the time...). I find this much more fascinating at the elementary level with children who are more or less "tattling" to get a verdict from the adult in charge: who is right, who is wrong, what the consequence will be, etc. So at aftercare, they're starting to get wise that I don't roll like that, and what used to take a long time to come to a solution takes less time now, and they really seem to move forward better when everyone's opinion/story/feelings are considered valid in trying to get to a solution. I also have to say that you do NOT want a pocket version of me... I really enjoy talking theory because it gets me wagging my finger at myself for all the counter-theory I am practicing!