We’ve all seen it, whether you’re a parent, an educator, a grandparent, a babysitter, an aunt or an uncle. A child is speeding through a crowded playground and crashes into an unsuspecting child standing in his path. “Sorry!” he calls back without slowing down.
Meanwhile, across the playground, another child is eyeing a friend’s shiny tiara. Eventually, she snatches it off her friend’s head. Immediately, the friend is in tears, and almost as immediately the grabber’s mother is standing over her demanding she say “Sorry.” “Sorry,” the thief says reluctantly and returns the toy.
It’s what we are conditioned to do. We are all told by all of our caregivers to say “sorry” — and by age 3 or 4 it is automatic. Young children push over a friend and yell, “Sorry.” When teachers call out a child for her behavior in class, she is quick to offer an apology.
The problem is that we never stop to teach our children what it means to be “Sorry.” What good is an apology when there is no meaning behind it?
Recently, I noticed a scratch on a 4-year-old student’s neck after recess. I learned that another child had tried to grab him during a chasing game. When I called this child over to discuss the incident, he immediately did as most of my students do: He said “sorry” and he expected the conversation to end.
He expected that this one word would fix everything, until the next day, when he would again be called over to discuss another incident and again call upon this magical word to set him free of all guilt. “Sorry” was his — and most of his peers’ — get-out-of-jail-free card.
Instead, I called a meeting in the classroom. I asked all 17 of the preschoolers in my class what it means to be “sorry.” One said, “It’s when you do something bad.” Another children said, “It’s an apology. You have to apologize.” The final definition they agreed upon was: “You hurt a kid and you have to say you’re sorry.”
Then I had a turn to actually teach my class the definition of sorry and the proper way to use the word. I told them, “Sorry is said only when you notice something you have done, and you notice how you made yourself, or another child, or grownup feel. Maybe you hurt their body, or maybe you hurt their heart. Either way, you have to really notice that you hurt someone in some way. Then, you have to make a decision that this is something that you will try so hard to never do again. And then, you work really hard to never do that thing again.”
Since we broke down the word and gave it a true meaning, I’ve noticed that my class hardly uses the word “sorry.” I never force my children to say it — simply because this is not something I can force a child to feel.
This does not mean that I’m operating a classroom full of children who run around recklessly knocking into each other, snatching toys out of others’ hands, or crashing down each others’ block structures without showing remorse or making it right.
Instead, I would argue that our classroom has become more empathetic since our discussion. Instead of throwing an offhand “sorry” at their victims, my 4-year-olds now know to “check in” with friends. They know to stop what they are doing, look at their friends’ faces to see their friend’s emotions, acknowledge what they have done, and ask some version of “Are you okay?” They now ask, “What can I do to make you feel better?”
Sometimes their friends will request ice, others ask for a hug, and some ask that their friends are more careful with their bodies. There is real learning, real conversation, real understanding of how our actions affect others — real empathy. This is something “sorry” never provided for my children before.
Sometimes, we are too quick to respond when we see our children do something hurtful; we are too quick to make things “better,” and perhaps overeager to teach our children manners and appropriate behavior. But it is often far more beneficial to slow down and carefully consider our responses to our children’s behaviors. We need to be more reflective — and more selective — of the language we use, and the way we model for our youngest members of society. A word is just a word if we don’t give it meaning for children.