I take my three-year-old to a birth-through-age-five, music-and-movement class that meets once a week in my neighborhood. Our family's been doing the classes since my first was a toddler and my second a newborn, so -- nearly ten years!
In those years we've seen many other families come and go. A mother arrives with a toddler and a newborn; and a year or two later the older one disappears into the school system; and a year or two later the family is done with music class. But we're still going. I usually have one or two of the older ones with me, too; they stay in the anteroom and work on math or read books while I'm in the studio with the 3yo and the other children, singing and waving scarves.
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This quarter the class is fuller than usual -- due to a combination of babies being born during the course of the session, and a computer glitch that accidentally allowed too many families to sign up. And it can get boisterous in there. The instructor is very easygoing about the children getting up and moving around the room, as long as they're not running with claves, and I'm pretty used to that. It is a music-and-movement class, after all.
Today, however, in the middle of a song, a frustrated mother from across the room got up, walked over to me, and said: "Can you please keep your son from running around the room? All the other children are following him!" (Including, I assume, her own two-year-old daughter.)
I was caught off guard because it's pretty usual for the children to be running around the room -- but I immediately saw three things: (1) She was new, (2) there are more children than usual and so running around might actually be a problem in this particular class, (3) I was sitting right next to the instructor -- and I knew that I could trust the instructor to talk to us separately if there was a problem. So I apologized to her, and then I grabbed my 3yo as he trotted by and pulled him into my lap for a Tickle of Redirection.
While I had him in my lap I whispered to him, "See that mommy over there? She got worried because you were running around the room and her little girl wanted to do what you are doing. It's okay to run, but can you help her forgive us? Can you go apologize to her?"
I admit that part of me, feeling stung, wanted to show off my good-mothering skills. As I've written before, the disciplinarian in me is pretty smug about having mastered the art of teaching kids to apologize.
"Okay, mama," he said, and a song or two later he danced over and said -- not actually to the correct mommy, but I think perhaps she heard him anyway -- "I'm sorry I was running, will you forgive me?"
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Part of me was a little indignant about this whole thing because it isn't, after all, against the rules for the small children to run and dance around the room in this class. (Just as I was leaving the studio I caught sight of the instructor starting a conversation with the worrying mother, but I didn't stick around to eavesdrop.) And I started to be indignant on behalf of my three-year-old. Maybe I shouldn't have sent him to apologize. Why should he feel ashamed or bad just because she didn't like the way he was playing?
And then I realized that he did not give any sign whatsoever of having felt ashamed or bad. He had danced right over there, eagerly, and recited the words he has learned.
Apologies in our household are so common, so routine, and so ritualized that for most of us they don't have any connotation of humiliation.*
I don't punish kids by making them apologize.
I tell them that we do it to help the other person forgive them, and it doesn't matter whose fault something was or whether the other person was wrong; the point is to smooth the way to forgiveness, something we always should desire from anyone who is unhappy with our behavior -- justified or not.
It was a nice reminder, seeing my three-year-old cheerfully dancing around the room afterwards, free, and I felt my own indignation at "having been made to apologize" evaporating as I contemplated him.
I think there'd be a lot fewer "fake apologies" and "apology-non-apologies" in the world if we all understood that there's nothing inherently humiliating or false about apologies -- if we understood that the point of apology is nothing more than a desire for forgiveness -- for the sake of someone else who needs to forgive -- put into words and actions. It's not necessarily or only a way of saying "I was wrong and I need your forgiveness." It can also be a way of saying "You need to forgive me, and I want what's good for you."
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*I do have one child, age nine, who finds it hard to summon the words "I'm sorry," even with a script. He turns a little red and smiles nervously. I think it's more performance anxiety than anything. I find I need to take a little more care with him, so that he doesn't interpret the act of apologizing as a humiliating punishment -- but I still think that the practice is good for him, and that the repetition will make it easier eventually.