It’s a phrase we say or hear a lot as parents, so much that I’m afraid it has lost its meaning.
Say you’re sorry.
Part of being a good parent is calling your kids on bad and mean behavior and teaching them to apologize, right? But what an apology means, and how you say it, varies incredibly from culture to culture and even from family to family. There are a number of recent articles out there, in fact, challenging the whole idea of forcing your kids to apologize, reasoning that a teeth-clenching “Sorry!” – when offered insincerely – teaches the wrong lesson anyway.
I think apologies are an important language skill to learn though. They are one of the keys to repairing and maintaining relationships with friends, siblings, and all the other people we come in contact with throughout the day. So we teach our kids a “Four Part Apology.”.We don’t use this for little things like bumping into someone accidentally, but for the situations where they have been unkind or selfish or disobedient or disrespectful, this is what is expected.
I’m sorry for…
We teach our kids to name their sin and take responsibility for it. Not just “I’m sorry,” but “I’m sorry for taking your toy from you” or “I’m sorry for talking back.” They need to know what they did that was wrong.
It was wrong because…
We want our children to know why it was wrong. In our home, we try to connect this to a familiar Bible verse – “It was wrong because children should obey their parents” or “It was wrong because God tells us to love one another.” You may simply direct them to know that certain actions are wrong because they are selfish or inconsiderate or disrespectful or other similar trait.
Next time I will…
We guide our children to identify how they will do things differently next time. And this can’t be a repeat of part two. No “It was wrong because I should obey and next time I will obey you.” It has to be specific. If my daughter was disciplined for talking back, she can’t just say, “Next time I won’t talk back,, but “Next time you tell me to clean my room, I will say, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and do it right away.”
Will you forgive me?
This last part is easily glossed over, but it is the most important, because at the heart of a sincere apology is the desire for reconciliation with the one who was offended.
So putting it all together, suppose our daughter says something snarky after we tell her to hang up her clothes and towel from Homeschool Swim and Gym, and let’s say she pushes it enough to warrant a timeout. When she gets out, she would need give us a four-part apology that sounds something like this:
“Mama, I’m sorry for talking back and not obeying when you told me to hang up my things. It was wrong because I should obey my parents and speak respectfully. Next time, I will hang them up the first time you tell me and have a good attitude. Will you forgive me?”
The first few (hundred) times of using this, we guided our daughter through the apology, because while she could get parts 1 and 4, the middle got all muddled up. But the more consistently we used it, the better she got, and now she can mostly do it on her own. The advantage is that the process of apologizing forces her to think through her actions and take responsibility for them.
Did you notice what’s missing from the apology? Any mention of why she did what she did. No justifications of behavior. No “I’m sorry for yelling. I was just tired.” Or “I’m sorry for what I did, but you shouldn’t have done what you did either!” Just a recognition of what she did and that she was in the wrong. Period.
And do you know what else? Four-part apologies aren’t just for kids. I use them, too.
Sweetheart, I’m sorry for yelling at you. It was wrong because I wasn’t speaking with love. Next time I will use a gentler tone of voice with you. Will you please forgive me?
And she does, every time. Because in our family, we do apologies, and we do forgiveness, and we do grace. And I pray that the example we are setting now builds a foundation for their futures.