The True Meaning of 'Sorry'
When I was pregnant and had very small babies, I thought that I never wanted to be one of those people that made their children “say sorry.” I can’t stand forcing a small child to use words they don’t understand, in a social world that simply demands things of them that don’t make sense. I wanted my children to understand sorry from the heart, not just say it.
But at the same time, I didn’t want to never teach my children explicitly what sorry is — a family that never says sorry, never deals with hurt, never goes back and see’s what they could do better; that is not the kind of emotional unattached family I was building. We discuss things, deal with them, and don’t let emotions go cold and hard.
When my oldest began to communicate, we had to do everything explicitly. Diagnosed with a developmental delay, and likely on the autism spectrum, he began to speak at three, toilet at four, and interact on a more “normal” level at five. Now six, he “looks” normal to others, but he will always struggle with things that his brother and sister have learned “naturally” at much younger ages. We had to learn how to break things down in steps, lists, and help him find his own way through the day until he had them internalized.
So when others were demanding their three year olds to say sorry, I was hoping my three year old would say mama.
At the same time, that explicitness has been a great strength in our house and to my parenting. There is no expecting a child to simply do something because they “should,” and it makes me realize that even my “neurotypical” children need to have things laid out explicitly and helpfully, gently guiding them to the next step, not demanding age inappropriate things of them. Learning to say sorry is one of those things that taught me that we need to do things with our children at the age and space that they’re at.
So the steps for saying sorry grew. Why did we say sorry? What was the social and emotional point of it all?
Well, first, I really did want my children to attend to their siblings, to notice what they had done with and to their family members. If someone is crying, that person should never be left alone to cry by themselves, unless they have asked to be alone. If someone is hurt, everyone, regardless of fault, should help them with that hurt.
So sorry is about attention. It is about attending to someone; it is about stopping and thinking about someone else. So I never want to hear my child say sorry and roll their eyes, or to yell “sorry, sorry, sorry” and run away. So let’s start with stopping, and if saying sorry is part of that, then great, because sorry in English does mean, “I feel bad about what’s happened and I took a moment to acknowledge it.”
So first I began with getting my children to stop, I talked about the word sorry, but I didn’t use the phrase “say sorry” —I started with “let’s help our sister/friend/mommy and take a moment” and later on talked about “apologizing” and saying sorry to mean just that.
But that’s not enough, is it? Once we’ve taken a moment, that person is still hurt, still crying, still in need of help. We have attended to them, but what are we now going to do with our attention?
So the next step is to ask if they’re okay. If they are, then saying sorry might be enough. If the person is fine, then we can attend only for a moment and get back to playing trains. At least the person knows that we will listen and take them seriously the next time they need to be heard.
And if they’re not okay, we need to ask them what help they need, right? So we do, and we listen, and we do what they ask — perhaps with a little bit of reasonableness thrown in from mommy. Hugs, booboo bags or rebuilding the layout are often all the other child really wants. And both children see mommy come up with the help she gives, and realizes that they can be the givers of those helps as well.
And when we’re done actively helping, we need to think about what we’ll do next time to not have to say sorry. We’ll learn from our mistake, and then let the person know “here’s what I’ll do next time!” And no, the answer is not phrased in the negative “I won’t hit you again” because that focuses back on the original problem, it doesn’t move forward to what we will do in the future. Some brainstorming might be necessary, but that’s the whole point — figuring out the next step, how to get back to playing, how to heal the hurt, and not cause it the next time. “I will use my hands for building,” “I will walk carefully around smaller children next time.”
So saying sorry is not a word, it’s a process:
Stopping, attending and possibly using the word sorry, if it makes sense;
Asking “Are you okay?”
Asking “Do you need help?”
Stating “Next time, I …”
Sometimes only some of the steps are applicable. A very young child may only be learning about attending: an 18-month-old stopping and giving “gentle touches,” or giving back the toy on a good day; a three-year-old might be better at the giving help step and goes about rebuilding the train track together after stopping; a six-year-old at the mall might not have a chance to tell the stranger all of these things, but with mommy can brainstorm in the van on the way home, “what will we do next time to be safe around other people?”
Now “saying sorry” meant something and could be used as a tool for true learning for my children.
And that’s the point when I realized, this list is what we all want from each other, to be attended to, to be asked about how we are, to get help if we need, and to know that the other person will do these things for us next time. Even if we can’t express it, even if we never learned it as children, in our depths it is what we all want. We subjugate it with passive aggressiveness; we lay on complexities of romantic, familial, and business relationships. But deep down, many of us are still hurt children, and we never learned this process when it was easy, and when it was about hurt train tracks, and not hurt marriages.
When I realized that this is what sorry meant, I began to see it not implemented in the adults around me. I realized that our culture builds a wall to have us not have these kind of open and honest moments of emotional learning and connectedness and I saw that I was teaching my children something more than what some adults are able to accomplish day to day. And to me that meant I was on the right path!
And then I had the real breakthrough. I realized that this is what I wanted from my spouse. We have a very connected relationship, have worked on it intensively, but he had never learned “how to say sorry” — tritely or otherwise — as a child either. From a family that did not focus on emotional connectedness, he has learned much about how to be an emotionally attentive person, husband, and father, but our few fights still got in a rut, and focused on “topics” rather than the issue. My husband is a very logical man whose brain wiring is not all that different from my oldest son. He struggles with social connectedness and expectations. And I was expecting something and never got it, and I was getting mad and holding on to that.
But I had never told him what I wanted! I had never realized how much I wanted him to say sorry. I was willing to let go of almost anything he could say or do, just as I hoped he would ignore the things I said that were rash, and silly, as long as I said sorry, really sorry, just like the sorry that I had developed with my children. But how could I expect that, if I wasn’t doing it myself, and if I hadn’t told him exactly what I needed back.
So I told him about sorry, I told him so he could teach our children too, and so that he could learn, both for them and for me. And in a quiet moment alone, I told him that I needed him to say sorry this way. It was getting between me and him, even just a little, and it was something that I required to be whole, calm, loved and loving.
I wanted to be sorry, I wanted to be given sorry, I wanted to teach sorry, and I wanted to have a family that cared enough to attend to sorry. But properly, in the way of true emotional connection, and not just as a word we say without meaning. This is what I wanted to give my children, give my husband, and the other friends and family in my life. What I wanted to be on a day to day basis.
And now, I’m only sorry I didn’t realize what sorry meant sooner.