They are two pretty powerful words – “I’m sorry”. Some find them hard to say, others say them so frivolously that they become meaningless. Many of us were taught to use them as kids, “Say sorry to your brother/sister/friend/aunt/goldfish” etc. etc. Sometimes the lesson went a bit beyond this with wisdom like, “and don’t ever do that again”. Although this latter comment reaches a bit deeper, when it comes to apologies, we usually only teach the tip of the iceberg.
“…the ‘I’m sorry’ part… is just the start of the apology – just the start of making things better and earning true forgiveness.”
When a behaviour or action has resulted in someone being upset, then an apology is generally required. If the action was an accident, for example a child tripping, bumping into and hurting another, then the offending child would say “sorry”. In this case, the hurt child would typically say something like “it’s O.K.” This response acknowledges that it was an accident and there is no need for the child who tripped to feel bad. However, when the action was intentional the response of “it’s O.K.” is not ‘O.K.’ The fact that someone committed an intentional behaviour to make someone else feel bad, is never O.K. In this latter situation, a better response is, “I accept your apology, but please do not do that again”. This emphasizes the need and expectation of changed behaviour from the offending person (i.e. “and don’t ever do that again”). Those words… the “I’m sorry” part… are just the start of the apology – just the start of making things better and earning true forgiveness.
“True forgiveness is earned over time. It happens in the minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months following the incident.”
True forgiveness is earned over time. It happens in the minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months following the incident. It happens as the result of two things – changed behaviour, and kindness. The offending person must change their behaviour by never performing that action again. They must also be extra kind to the offended person. If they do these things then true forgiveness might be achieved. This is what we need children to understand so that they do not grow-up thinking that ‘sorry’ is all that is needed to make things better.
If you say something really horrible about the way I look (it wouldn’t take all that much imagination) and then say sorry, I don’t automatically forget what you said. It isn’t O.K. that you said those things. I may not really care about the fact that you said it, or I might care a lot. This can depend on a variety of factors such as our relationship, my own level of resilience, what lead-up to the incident etc. Either way, it will not be erased from my memory. I will remember that you are someone who said that to me. What follows this incident is not typically complete forgiveness, even if the offended person says, “I forgive you”. However, if you are kind to me from here on, and never repeat that type of offending behaviour, then perhaps eventually we arrive at a point of genuine forgiveness.
Children deserve to be taught this. They need to understand how to accept an apology (according to whether it was an accident or intentional action), how to give an apology, and how to follow it up with kindness and changed behaviour. As adults, we need to both model this and explicitly teach it. Now go forth and apologize.