Please note that the flip side of teaching kids personal responsibility is teaching them how to recognize abuse or times they should not take responsibility for other peoples’ feelings. Parenting is never easily summed up in a single trite article, though it would be handy if it could be!

Apology isn’t just social etiquette. It’s a hugely important human ritual that brings relationships together and helps people move forward.”

Sarah Dutch

I’m pushing my shopping carriage through a crowded grocery store. I’m preoocupied; it’s been a long day. My kids’ dad forgot to pick them up again; I had a long day at work; there’s a winter storm coming; I’m worrying about how to make ends meet. I move through the aisles absentmindedly and push my carriage into another shopper.

“I’m sorry!” I exclaim. “I was not paying attention. Are you ok? Did I hurt you?” Of course I didn’t push my carriage into this stranger intentionally. Perhaps they even stopped abruptly. It doesn’t matter — I’ve hit them, and I apologize and try to make it right, then I pay closer attention for the rest of the trip so I don’t repeat the scenario.

This is the same concept we teach our kids from the time they are small. At the playground, if they hit another child with a ball and the other child is hurt, we coach them: “I know you didn’t do it on purpose, but he’s hurt. Let’s go apologize and see if there’s anything we can do to help him feel better, and we’ll let him know you’ll try to be more careful with your ball.”

Somehow, it’s easy to lose this message when it comes to non-physical hurts, especially when we have a kid with rejection-sensitive dysphoria or who is a perfectionist, for instance. “I didn’t mean to,” my pre-teen will tell me when they’ve said something hurtful. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I wasn’t trying to be mean.” But in our family, apologizing is not about intent. In this world, apologizing should not always be about intent. Reparations should not be about intent. Impact is important. And practicing the art and science of apology from a young age teaches kids compassion and emotional resilience.

Not only that, but teaching children remorse and apology offers them a sense of power to change the world in a positive way. They learn that their words and actions have impact — both negative and positive, and that it’s ok to make mistakes. It teaches them that mistakes can be corrected; it teaches them interdependence; it teaches them to live in relationship with others.

When talking with my own children about this concept, I’ve found feet to be an effective metaphor.

“If I was walking through the room and I stepped on your foot, and I was wearing shoes and you were barefoot, would you want me to apologize?” Inevitably, the answer is yes. “But what if I didn’t mean to step on your foot? What if it’s an accident?” Still, of course, my child would expect an apology. It’s a good start, but the metaphor is easily extended.

“What if I started stepping on your feet a lot? Not on purpose, but if I just didn’t really pay attention to where your feet were, and I stepped on them when they were in my way? How would that make you feel, if I did that … say … a few times a week?”

I’m sure by now, if you are reading this, you can see where I’m going.

“What if I apologized each time I stepped on your foot, but I never changed my behavior? There’s a difference between NOT TRYING to step on your foot, and TRYING NOT TO step on your foot. When you find yourself having to apologize for the same thing, maybe it’s time to start actively working on TRYING NOT TO step on someone’s feet.”

There’s science behind a good apology. Researchers generally agree there are six elements behind a “perfect apology,” but that the two most important are:

  • Accept responsibility
  • Attempt or offer to repair

The next three components of the apology are equally important to one another, but all less important than the first two above.

  • express regret
  • explain what went wrong (this is different than making excuses)
  • declaring repentance

If you want to throw in the sixth least important and impactful element, ask for forgiveness.

Notice that there’s no component to the apology that involves prostrating yourself, admitting you are a horrible person, or even owning wrongdoing. A good apology is about compassion and remorse.

“I just stepped on your foot. Are you hurt? Do you need ice or a bandaid? I’m sorry that I wasn’t paying more attention/being more careful. I’ll try not to do it again. Can you forgive me?”

As a mother of five, I’ve had ample opportunities to model apologies for my kids. I’m human, and so are they, and inevitably, I’ve hurt or upset them. “I’m sorry,” I have to tell them. “I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings, but I can see that when I [did or said the thing] it upset you. Thank you for letting me know you’re upset. I’ll try to [change my behavior] so it doesn’t happen again. Is there any way I can make you feel better right now?” If it seems appropriate, I might explain why I was less present than usual or less patient or whatever, but the focus of the apology is on the impact of my words or actions.

Of course, it’s not always this simple. Sometimes the apology is more complicated. “I’m sorry it upsets you so much when I remind you to do your chores. Is there a better strategy to make sure you get your stuff done so we don’t argue?”

And then, it might come back round to feet. Once I’ve validated my kids’ feelings, there might be a second component of the conversation. Have they also stepped on my feet inadvertently? How are we going to work together to ensure we’re all considering the impact of our words and actions — what needs to happen for us to pay attention to where the other feet are in the room? And I remind them, again, that making mistakes is human. It doesn’t make them a bad person. But the other part of being human is making it right, whether in writing or in person, and then trying to change their behavior in the future.

Do you have a favorite metaphor, tool, or quote for dealing with apologies? I’d love to hear it.