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  • Melissa Panara

Universally Needed, Rarely Taught

Apologizing. It’s a tricky business.

On the face of it, an apology is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. By saying you’re sorry, you are admitting, on some level, that you’ve messed up. And while 100% of us have messed up, far less opt to admit it. Beyond this admission, factors such as sincerity, ownership, word choice, and tone of voice all come into play. A lot goes into a good apology.

While sorry is just a word, apologizing is a complex blend of art and science. And usually when there is something complex to be learned, we are taught. If you are learning to change a tire, perform CPR, or make a soufflé, typically there is someone more experienced there showing you what to do. These days that person might be on YouTube or TikTok, but they are still there with you (and, unlike your driver’s ed instructor, you can pause/backtrack/rewatch them until your battery gives out). The education lingo for this exercise is task analysis: the breaking down of a skill into its component parts and the teaching of those parts in a systematic way. But when it comes to the skill of admitting our mistakes and making amends, we're mostly left to figure it out on our own. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

As flawed human beings, I’d argue that every last one of us should know how to offer an earnest apology. We also need to know when to apologize, and when not to apologize. We need to practice letting ourselves off the hook when our remorse becomes overwhelming or burdensome. I’ll stop there, but the list does go on… I’m picturing it like the scrolling end-credits of a movie. If you’re anything like me, you make your friend stay to the bitter end so you don’t miss the (possibly included) deleted scene that the poor saps already in the parking lot will never see. I don’t apologize for that; she knew what she was getting into when she agreed to go to the movies with me. But I digress. Here’s my point: if something is complex, nuanced AND a universal requirement of being a decent human being, why are we not teaching our kids exactly how to do it?

The following is an excerpt from the chapter, Apologies: Big, Small, or Not at All from my book, Life Is Written In Pencil. It is my view on how we, innocently, dropped the ball on apology instruction...


Little Kids and Big Offenses

When children are toddlers, we teach them to apologize for their inappropriate, albeit age-appropriate, actions. I’m guessing it is on page one of the Parenting 101 handbook, since we all know that we’re supposed to do it and were definitely too tired to read as far as page two. Since all toddlers misbehave as they figure out the world, prompting them to apologize is bound to be a frequent event. Hitting, taking a toy away from another kid, pulling someone’s hair - all just another day at the office for a typical two-year old. As a little guy, Michael would default to saying I’m sorry when I prompted him with the classic “What do you say?”, even when the situation called for a thank you or an excuse me. Poor kid. Obviously his apology was not completely sincere since I flat out told him to say it, but it was practice nonetheless. You have to start somewhere.

Although par-for-the-toddler-sized course, this kind of apology is devoid of reflection. Michael was just too young to review his actions; he didn’t feel remorse and then pause to reflect on what to do about it. (It is cracking me up picturing two-year old Mikey with his brow furrowed, pointer finger tapping his angled-up chin, contemplating the fall-out from the shove he just landed on his cousin Taryn). His apologies at that age were just parroted sentiments: conjured by the adult, said by the kid. The offended party might feel a little better hearing this apology, but without reflection on the part of the offender, it is hollow and kind of meaningless. Because it is the reflection that motivates the other person to forgive.

One better than forced-parroting is teaching a young child the basic steps of apologizing. This usually happens when the offense is deemed “big”, like when one child physically hurts another child. The two kids are brought together, and the one who did the hurting is asked to acknowledge what they did wrong, ask for forgiveness, and promise not to do it again. The kid who was hurt is prompted to forgive since the first child completed all of the basic apology steps. Bare bones, but moving in the right direction.

Bigger Kids and Little Offenses

As children continue to grow, their physical misdeeds taper off. Parents begin to see the last of the pinching and shoving, but the new, more varied mistakes of older childhood quickly take their place. But by this time, I’d argue, teaching our children how to apologize is already checked off the parental to-do list. They know how to say they’re sorry - they’ve been doing that on their own since Kindergarten. We’ve already taught them that. Besides, we’re too busy limiting screen time to do anything else. By not teaching older children how to apologize in a more sophisticated way, their requests for forgiveness can sound as hollow and devoid of reflection as when they were toddlers. Have you ever heard preteen siblings apologize to each other? That.

Here’s another thing that can happen: an older kid's default setting becomes “defensive” because they don’t know how to acknowledge and own a mistake. Admitting any transgression or lapse of judgment can feel synonymous with saying “I am a horrible person.” I have vivid memories of giving my parents the attitude-laden SORRRee, not knowing how to graciously admit that I had messed up. My ego at ten years-old just could not bear the brunt of such an admission. Beyond this, perhaps an apology only feels necessary when it is a more large-scale offense, like the hitting/pinching scenarios of days gone by. But of course that isn’t true. The vast majority of apology opportunities arise from the small, day-to-day errors of judgment. The little missteps of life.


The little missteps of life. Let’s start here… with these small-scale, relatable slip-ups. We can take the sting out of owning and apologizing for bigger mistakes when we start with these little guys. The practice time is built-in because little mistakes are so common. Before you know it, apologizing will become a routine, dare-I-say-comfortable, occurrence. And, let’s face it, we adults have no shortage of opportunities to model these types of apologies for our children. My kids (and probably a handful of yours) watch me mess up and apologize all the time.

Even though my own big kids are graduates of Mom’s Sorry School, I don’t consider my job to be done. I still need to be on the lookout for a few important things:

  • Are they apologizing without adding a litany of excuses to explain it away? An offer to make things right is fine, but a laundry list of reasons why you messed up waters down even the best of apologies. Less is more.

  • Are they backing up their apologies with their future actions? Do their subsequent choices keep their apologies from becoming hollow and not believable?

  • Are they apologizing for things that weren’t within their control to begin with? If so, we can revisit some alternate phrases for such occasions. They certainly don’t have to own the world’s problems in order to be seen as “nice people”.

  • Am I finding enough opportunity to acknowledge when they’ve really hit it out of the park? “Nice. That was a solid apology. No worries about…”

Even as an adult who thinks about this topic quite often, I find I still need a tune-up from time to time. But that is okay; it’s not about being perfect. It’s about normalizing the imperfection in all of us. So continue to be the wonderfully imperfect you… the one thing for which you never need to apologize.

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