A Clean Slate
Your child breaks a vase at a friend’s house and you apologize to your friend. Your child says something hurtful to a friend and you instruct your child to say that he or she is really sorry. You arrive late to pick your child up from day care and tell the director that you are so incredibly sorry.
Teaching children to apologize is important, but simply saying you’re sorry is only the first step in making complete amends, according to Hamilton Beazley, author of “No Regrets: A Ten-Step Program for Living in the Present and Leaving the Past Behind.” “Rather than talk about apologies, we really should talk about amends,” says Beazley, explaining that there are several components that make them effective.
Beazley describes a complete amends as a three-fold activity, including the apology, the reparation for damages and, finally, the amended behavior. In the case of a forgotten birthday, you would not only say you’re sorry, you’d send a belated card and gift, explain how you’ll mark the special date in red on next year’s calendar and then follow through when the birthday comes around again to complete the amends.
Is it ever too late to apologize? Beazley says no, even if the person you want to make amends with is unreachable. “One way to apologize to someone who is dead or missing is through a letter you write and actually mail, a letter that is never received,” he says. The healing letter is a psychological device for communicating with someone who is no longer living or is otherwise unreachable. “Human beings are highly symbolic creatures. A letter that is mailed is a powerful psychological substitute for the real thing,” says Beazley, who explains that making an apology benefits the giver, as well as the receiver.
Teaching children to practice this three-fold apology is a healthy tool for emotional well-being. Going through the effort to make amends has psychological and physical health benefits.
“We know that apologizing reduces guilt and increases intimacy,” says Beazley, adding that the process also helps people forgive themselves for wrongdoings. “Research suggests the health benefits of forgiving include lower blood pressure, improved immune system functioning, lower stress, less depression.”
When teaching kids to say sorry, follow these do’s and don’ts to make amends most effective.
Do prepare ahead of time. A little preparation goes a long way in making a successful apology. Talk to kids before they apologize to a friend, and let them practice what to say. “Prepare for the apology through prayer, creative visualization, journaling about your feelings or discussions with a confidant,” says Beazley.
Do stay calm. Kids, especially, may be very worried about an apology. Nervousness and anxiety are normal during a confrontation, but communication will be most effective if they stay as calm as possible. Taking a deep breath or listening to relaxing music can help kids and adults stay cool. “Approach the other party as calmly, honestly and openly as you can, focusing on your single goal: to make an apology and leave,” says Beazley.
Do make it complete. “Include all the components of an effective apology,” says Beazley. A complete apology will acknowledge inappropriate behavior (“sorry I broke your toy”), accept responsibility for it (“I was being careless”), express regret (“I wish I had been more careful”), request pardon (“I hope you’ll accept my apology”) and assure future changes in the behavior (“I’ll replace your toy, and next time, I’ll play in a gentle way”).
Do make it timely. Family life can be busy, however, putting off an apology can cause stress and elevate hurt feelings. Don’t wait around for a week or a month or even just assume all is forgotten. “The sooner an apology is made, the more effective it is in restoring balance to the relationship,” says Beazley.
Don’t grovel. “You have not come to beg for forgiveness, but to offer an apology and describe the reparations you have in mind,” says Beazley. Pleading for mercy can appear insincere and self-serving as a way to get rid of guilt. Asking for a pardon as part of an apology is fine, but expecting immediate forgiveness can lead to disappointment and further offend the other party.
Don’t argue. Teach children to admit their mistakes, not to find fault with others. Don’t condemn, lecture or blame the other party for any part in the regret. Help kids to avoid getting defensive or excusing their behavior.
Don’t be a serial apologist. “Serial apologists are people who keep apologizing for repetitions of the same behavior, but they do not alter their behavior,” says Beazley, adding that when an apology is offered over and over again for the same mistake without reparation, the apology is meaningless.
Don’t make the mistake again. Sorry implies that you recognize an error on your part and are regretful. We all learn from our mistakes, and the best way to seal an apology is with future actions. Talk to kids about how they can change their behaviors in the future and help them stick to it.
Sharon Miller Cindrich is a mother of two, wife and keeper of multiple household pets. She has written several books including “E-Parenting: Keeping Up With Your Tech-Savvy Kids.”