When I was a kid, I got into trouble for ordinary kid-sort of things. Not cleaning my room, backtalking (usually I didn't mean to backtalk, but somehow, I was told, things came out sounding that way), staying out too late, lying about where I'd been.
I often got myself into worse trouble for refusing to say "I'm sorry." I was one of those people who reasoned, "I don't really feel sorry -- so it would be lying to say so. I don't really think I was wrong -- no way am I going to 'admit' that I was wrong, since I wasn't."
(I had not yet learned the fine art of the fake apology, so well practiced by public figures, the "I'm sorry that you were offended," or the "I'm sorry that you had to see this," much of which boils down to "I'm sorry that you got caught.")
After a while I figured out that it was sometimes in my best interest to apologize, and I did understand that. I learned to say "I'm sorry" when I didn't mean it. I learned that this sometimes made things better.
But as I grew to young adulthood, married and had a child of my own, I also remembered being a child, and I remembered the peculiar humiliation of being "made to say sorry" when I was utterly convinced I had done nothing wrong or even negligent. It does happen, you know: just as happens to adults sometimes, children get misunderstood, misconstrued, wrongly judged. And I grappled for a long time with the question: what, after all, is the point of saying "I'm sorry?" What is so important about it that adults teach children that they must say it to someone who feels they have been hurt, even if it is not a true statement? What good does a "sorry" really do? Is the pretense just social lubrication, like pretending you care about the weather or the local sports team during obligatory small talk? Or is there some meaning?
Perhaps I was overthinking it, but I felt that it mattered. I was a young adult on the verge of having to teach a child of my own. I have never been satisfied with repeating the lessons that were drilled into me, at least not without understanding them. I wanted to teach my child something I believed.
My first child was a toddler learning to speak and interact with others before I figured it out, in a sudden insight: I saw the framework -- maybe just "a" framework -- in which an "I'm sorry" made sense.
What I realized is this: The purpose of an apology is to invite forgiveness.
Let's say that Billy believes Alex has harmed him, and is angry. It may be that Alex intentionally hurt Billy, or it may be that Alex negligently hurt Billy, or it may be that Alex did nothing at all and Billy's made a mistake. It may be that Alex ought to be punished for what he did, it may be that Alex owes Billy restitution, it may be that someone else deserves to pay, or it may be that no one is at fault at all.
One thing is certain to help and not to hurt: if Billy forgives Alex.
What clicked for me that day is that an apology does not necessarily have to be understood as pretending sincere regret (what if I know I didn't do anything wrong?) or repentance (what if I am still feeling angry and haven't yet received the grace of penitence?).
This is so even if the words of an apology come out sounding something like "I am sorry, I was wrong." The words are conventional words, part of an exchange that is ritual and thus has unspoken meaning. They are an idiom. They are not meant to benefit the apologizing speaker, by expressing the feelings that are inside him, so that the speaker feels his true feelings has been heard. Rather, they are meant to produce an effect in the hearer.
The intended effect? To make it easier for the angry hearer to let go of his anger, to make it easier to forgive. An apology is an invitation to forgive. We say whatever we can say that will produce that effect. If we cannot bring ourselves to say "I wronged you," perhaps because we know something different has happened, then at the very minimum perhaps we can bring ourselves to say, "Will you forgive me?"
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Getting back to the children. When I got my head wrapped around the idea that an apology is an invitation to forgive, I no longer fretted about how to teach my children to apologize sincerely. In this framework, a "sincere apology" means an expression of a sincere desire that the other person forgive you. Even if it is hard to be sincerely "sorry" sometimes, especially when wrongly accused, it is easy to sincerely ask for forgiveness. Who would ever wish a grudge on anyone?
So when my child says, "But it wasn't my fault, so why do I have to say sorry?" that is what I explain:
You will apologize to her so that it will be easier for her to forgive you. Jesus says we have to forgive each other, and it is hard to forgive when we are angry, so you will make it easier for her to forgive you by asking for her forgiveness.
I gave them a formula to follow to make it super-easy, so they will never have to search for words. It goes like this:
"Jane, I'm sorry I stepped on your toy. Will you forgive me?"
"Drew, I'm sorry I wasn't looking and I ran into you. Will you forgive me?"
"Sue, I'm sorry I said words that hurt your feelings. Will you forgive me?"
They have to speak the person's name, they have to look them in the eye, they have to follow the "I'm sorry" with a statement that acknowledges why the person feels hurt, and they have to ask for forgiveness.
(Furthermore, if the person they hurt is a much smaller child, I require my kids to approach the child's mother or whomever and say, "I'm sorry I hurt your baby. Will you forgive me?")
And of course, when one of them asks the other for forgiveness, I require them to say "Yes, I forgive you." As soon as they can.
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Sometimes the brother and sister, summoned to enact the Apologize So She Can Forgive You script before me, are already smirking at each other as they recite. I catch the little gleam of "There goes Mom again with her apologizing thing." I like to see that. It proves they aren't holding a grudge against each other; it's more fun to share a silent inside joke about their mom. I hope they are still reciting it to each other and laughing many years from now.
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Of course, there is a drawback to this particular script.
It's the fact that when I correct my children, or shout at them, or say "Argh! Again? How many times do I have to tell you?!?"...
...they ask for my forgiveness.
Sometimes many times a day.
My eleven-year-old will stand there listening to me lecture him for a full minute and then when I stop he looks me in the eye and says, completely seriously, "I'm sorry I didn't finish unloading the dishwasher, Mom. Will you forgive me?"
My five-year-old will look up at me through her tears and say "Mom, I'm sorry I crumpled up my math sheet. Will you forgive me?"
My eight-year-old will glance shifty-eyed at me and say "Mom, I'm sorry I woke up my little brother. Will you forgive me?"
And that is when I discover how hard it can be to say "Yes."
There is such a temptation to turn it into a "Yes, but...." which, basically, is not a "Yes" at all.
I am still the parent and "forgiveness" does not mean nobody experiences any consequences or pays restitution. I find, though, that the tone is altered: I cannot, with a straight face, say "Yes, I forgive you" and then go back to shouting about a punishment. It comes out, a little awkwardly, with some explanation: "You're going to have to do two math sheets now, to remind you that you mustn't crumple up your math sheet just because you don't want to do it." "You're going to have to finish sweeping the floor for me, because now I have to get your brother back to sleep."
And after it's been one of those days, sometimes I think: Damn it, why did I teach them to ask me for forgiveness? How many times do I have to forgive?
How many times, indeed?