Can we stop teaching little kids that Yom Kippur is a day for saying “I’m sorry”? That seems to be the big idea that I keep hearing—from smart people! But we can do better.
I know this might seem counterintuitive. There are lots of children’s books, songs and videos and likely many a children’s service sermon that disagrees. Yom Kippur is a day of repentance, and Jewish tradition teaches that the days leading up to it are for introspection, reflection, and apologies. We take inventory of ourselves and our behavior; we pray, ask for and grant forgiveness. But that process simply can’t be reduced to a small child saying “I’m sorry” on command.
A growing body of experts agree that forced apologies don’t really aid children in navigating the aftermath of their own mistakes.
Yes, I want my kids to have good manners, but even more, I want them to be compassionate humans who recognize when they cause a hurt and find ways to make it better. Therefore, I don’t prompt them to say, “I’m sorry.”
This doesn’t mean a free pass to make a mess or cause pain without consequence. Instead, the upcoming holiday has encouraged me to re-frame my approach in the context of the big Jewish idea of Teshuvah (Hebrew word for repentance). It’s an idea that isn’t reserved for once a year, but is a part of how we relate to others daily.
In order to teach Teshuvah, I’ve got to model the behavior (it is a verb, not a noun). So I am so much more conscious of my behavior as a parent than I ever was before because I have impressionable eyes watching me constantly. This is a wonderful opportunity for self-improvement—by being conscious and articulating how, when and why I realize my own mistakes and will attempt to remedy them, I can do the most thorough job of spiritual preparation for the Jewish New Year of my life (it is also sometimes a cause of incredible anxiety, but that is a whole different post).
Kids need to know that people aren’t perfect. So as the High Holidays approach, I have been telling them about the other apologies I need to make or changes in my behavior I want to implement. Recently I drove away from the grocery store and said aloud, “I feel badly that I didn’t look the man who helped load our groceries in the trunk in the face when I thanked him. I really appreciate his help, and I want him to know that.”
The next time we were at the store, as our groceries were being loaded into the minivan, my 2-year-old thrashed against her carseat in protest before I went to go buckle her in (not a terribly unique occurrence), so I mentally braced myself to hear her whine—but she surprised me as she yelled “Mama! ‘member? I need to see helper’s face, say thank you!”
I unbuckled the strap and carried her over to the young man who was almost done emptying our cart into the trunk. She looked him in the eye and said, “Thank you!” then offered him a high five (kvell!). That anecdote affirmed the tactic I am trying.
But it isn’t all kindness and cuddles in my house–that incredibly sweet, articulate toddler of mine commits missteps daily. Sometimes it is an impulse control issue and sometimes it isn’t: “I want to hit you, Mommy” or “I want to hurt my sissy (sister)” are things she says.
But I don’t make her apologize. No, when one of my kids hurts another, I apologize on her behalf (this serves two purposes, since I feel like sometimes other grownups are judging me for not prompting my kid to say, “I’m sorry”).
To the offended, I’ll say something like: “I’m sorry that (insert name of whichever of my kids did the wrong) bumped/pushed/grabbed/hurt you. Are you OK?”
I wait for a response. I pause. I might ask my own child, “Can you think of a way we could help this kiddo feel better?” if she hasn’t already decided to get ice or a Band-Aid or offer a smile or toy to the offended.
It’s effective. Little kids make meaningful amends and grant forgiveness long before they have the verbal skills to say: “I’m sorry.” Watch a group of littles play and resist your urge to intervene, and you will likely see kids upset and console one another with a variety of gestures—sharing a toy, giving a hug or smile. You might notice that one kid’s tears will prompt grave concerns from his peers.
Making amends, learning from our mistakes, and trying to right the wrongs we have committed are abilities well within the capacities of our little ones. Navigating social norms and meeting the expectations of when and how to articulate one’s regrets, however, are tricky concepts that take (many) years to understand.
In my house, we are learning about and preparing for Yom Kippur. I ordered shofars and we make big noises with them and use the Wake Up World app to learn about it. We have a puppet set of Jonah and a Big Fish (whale) to prompt playful sharing of the story. We have been reading It’s OK to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr. We are welcoming friends to our home for a carb fest for the break fast.
But we are not talking about saying “I’m sorry” yet, because they have a lifetime of mistakes and apologies ahead of them that will provide ample opportunity to refine their repentance skills.