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#SorryNotSorry — The End of The Forced Apology

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I got an email the other day. My son’s teacher wanted to discuss my son’s strong emotional response that day in school. My first thought was — uh, could you please define strong emotional response? Did he burst into tears? Did he throw a table? Did he yell? Ah, the joy of delicately worded emails!

What prompted the strong emotional response? An apology. Another student had been made to apologize but my son refused to accept. He didn’t mean it, my son said with a shrug.

At first I wasn’t sure how to react. I’ve spent years forcing strongly encouraging my kids to say they’re sorry, even when they don’t mean it. I know there’s a school of thought that says kids shouldn’t have to apologize (I’m looking at you, Mayim Bialk), but I don’t hang out much in that school. I realize that apologies may not spring forth naturally from a child but to me it’s just part of learning to use your manners. We say please, we say thank you and we also say sorry when we hit a kid over the head with a shovel — that would be me, age 3, in a sandbox somewhere in South Pasadena, by the way.

So I hadn’t really thought much about my position on the forced apology until now. My son is ten and he’s starting to question things. Okay, he’s always questioned things but all of a sudden his arguments are actually starting to make sense. As my son sees it, the teachers always make the students apologize when they do something wrong but no one ever means it. So why bother? Why should anyone accept an empty apology?

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Later that night, one of his favorite television shows didn’t record in its entirety. He got upset. It was late. Without thinking I said — I’m sorry that your show didn’t tape but it’s time to go to bed anyway. What did he come back with? You’re not really sorry because you don’t really care about my TV show at all.

Damn. I mean, it’s not that I’m not sorry at all. I’m not heartless. But do I really care whether or not he ever sees that last five minutes of Teen Titans? Well, not really. So I said, Look, I care that you’re upset but I admit that this isn’t my top concern at the moment. Hell, it’s Teen Titans. It’ll come on again — probably tomorrow! And while he was still pissed that the episode cut off at what was apparently THE BEST MOMENT EVER, he did appreciate my honesty.

So I wrote an email to the teacher explaining that while we have reminded our son to be calm and respectful (e.g., please don’t throw furniture, don’t yell, always use extremely un-colorful language, etc.), we support his decision not to accept an apology that he doesn’t feel is sincere.

And then I went one step further — Look, If you disagree with this practice, why don’t you do something about it? Email the school administration! Tell your teachers why you disagree with the practice of requiring students to apologize. Here’s your chance to do something on your own!

It may not be one of those exciting and potentially illegal walks alone on the streets of DC, but it is an opportunity to voice his concerns independently. Today he told me he got the vice principal’s email address and will be working on his email soon. I’m sure everyone at the school will be thrilled.

featured image by flickr user Leyram Odacrem

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8 Comments

    • Thanks! It’s funny because I actually have sort of been pushing the administration to be more apologetic in their emails! Okay, not with empty apologies but I really think it’s important to say — hey, we told you X would happen and it did not and we understand what a bummer that is. Well, I guess now they can just tell me that they really aren’t feeling the whole apology thing.

    • I’m kind of with your mom! But I feel like I have to let it go, especially with my son. He’s really, really stubborn and strong-willed and I’m tired of fighting with him when his mind is made up. And in terms of the kids communicating with each other, it seems like forcing them to work it out is a losing battle.

  1. One thing I’d like to raise about your post: I don’t think your “sorry your show didn’t tape” was an apology, but it was sympathy. You empathized with how that was unfortunate. It is important to note that sorry doesn’t always mean apology. “I’m sorry your dog died” doesn’t mean I did anything to it!

    Also, I think on the matter of forced apologies, there is a discussion to be had about the possibility that an apology and acceptance can allow people to move past a disagreement/argument/incident, to continue on together. That it is a form which allows the two players to put something behind them. It is true that sometimes an apology is insincere, and the person has no intention of improving, and those apologies may not need to be accepted, but forgiving even when undeserved is something which smooths social interactions.

    • Correct! Although I was kind of phoning in my sympathy.
      I agree that apologizing and accepting an apology can “smooth social interactions” but is that always a good thing? Sometimes it might be needed in a work or social situation in which the two players can’t escape each other, I suppose. But it might be more that the more gracious person, or the person interested in making peace, just grins and bears it. Maybe that’s not so healthy. I don’t know. Interesting to think about.

  2. I always tell my kids that I don’t care about their apology if they don’t change their behaviour.
    If you knock over your glass because you put it on the floor for the umpteenth time, your apology and your insistence that you didn’t do it on purpose mean exactly zilch. What I want them to do is to:
    -clean up that mess before the laminate floor is damaged
    -put their glass on the table

    Same with actual wrongdoing, because too often kids use an apology as a get out of jail free card, especially when the other one HAS to accept it: Be mean, say sorry, make the other one accept it, pretend you have a clean record, be mean again.
    I’m especially angry about how often adults will then be complicit in making the kid who’s had enough and who doesn’t accept the apology the bad one and the kid who actually behaved badly the real victim now because the kid they are bullying is saying that they have enough.
    We need to stop that. You may actually owe somebody an apology, but they never owe you acceptance.

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