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APOLOGIZING AND FORGIVING

Teaching the Twin Sisters of Peacemaking

A Perspective about Apologizing

Apologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value the relationship more than your ego.
From Positive Outlooks

The quote above, while difficult for a young child to fully understand, reflects a perspective that parents should have as they teach their children the importance of apologizing and forgiveness.  It’s simply this…that these are important relationship tools that can be used throughout life whether one is guilty of the crime or not. In other words, these are choices that one can make to improve relationships regardless of which end of the argument they find themselves on.  Sometimes it just doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong. The important thing is to foster good – maybe even strong – relationships with those we love and care about. Many times it’s much more important to apologize than to try to be the one who is proven right. Far too many of us want to win our point before we are willing to apologize or offer our forgiveness…often winning the battle, but losing the war…and maybe losing a friendship, too. Help your children understand that the real winner is the one who builds honest and lasting relationships, not the one who tries to win the argument each and every time.

Apologizing…the Right Way and the Wrong Way

There are right and wrong ways to apologize. It is in our human nature to protect the ego by justifying our behavior, and that sometimes leads to more trouble. “I’m sorry I yelled at you, but you shouldn’t have…” is the wrong way to apologize. This apology becomes an attack, which escalates the conflict making the other person defensive. As soon as you feel the word “but…” coming out of your mouth, bite down on your tongue. Let your apology stand. It’s likely that the other person in the conflict will then be able to apologize in return for their part in the breakdown.

You as a parent must model the right way to apologize. As we have done several times in this section of the Good Choices Good Life website, we remind parents that your past actions will be a major influence on how your child acts at moments like these. How you as a parent handle the art of apologizing will be one of the most important ingredients in your children’s view and understanding of the role of this activity. If you are sincere, they will be sincere. If they see you making the first effort to apologize, they will likely do the same. But, if they see you as almost always being reluctant to take this step – possibly being one who never apologizes but works extra hard to prove that you are right – they are likely to conduct themselves that way as well.

Even when your children are very small, you will find many opportunities to teach the importance of apologizing. One very good tool is to stop a social conflict in the middle and debrief it with your child. Start by asking them to identify…not what they are feeling, but what the other child is feeling. From there, you can start to help them see that there are, in fact, two sides to every story and that the truth typically lies in the middle somewhere. Teaching this two-view perspective early will help your child, as they grow older, to ask more questions and to seek the other person’s input before acting – or reacting in such a way that, at some point, an apology will be required.

If the other child is screaming or crying, it will be easy to name the feeling, “Look! Your sister is crying. When you hit her it hurts and she cries. How would it feel if she was the one who hit and you were the one crying?” This simple conversation helps the child learn to empathize with others. Empathy is simply putting the self in another’s shoes. Then you can guide the apology process: “Now, go tell her you’re sorry.” You may have to say the words for them at first: “I’m sorry, sister, that I hurt you.” Working hard to help your child see the other child’s view or understand their feelings about the situation will create an environment in which an apology can become sincere and work its magic as only honest words can do.

You may encounter some hardheaded moments,“But I’m not sorry!” Yes. You may hear these words from your children. Whether they have disrespected an adult or hurt another peer, you may hear this. A good response to your child in this situation is to first agree (somewhat) with them, “Yes. I can see that you’re not sorry. But, what you did hurt the other person, made them feel bad and you have to take responsibility for your actions. That is why you need to apologize…to make them feel better.”  It’s okay to acknowledge their stubbornness as this often clears the way for a more productive conversation. Then, once this is done, you can move on from there to guide them through the process.

Apologize First…Even When You Don’t Have To

Back to our opening quote and first paragraph concerning a perspective about apologizing, be sure to teach your children that there are times when they can use their apologizing tool even when they know they didn’t cause an offense to happen. For example, Susan says, “Those new shoes you are wearing look really funny on your feet.” Amber, who had been wanting her mother to buy her these shoes for weeks and who couldn’t wait to get to school today to show them off was totally deflated and immediately bristled at Amber’s poorly chosen comment, “Well, you aren’t exactly a fashion statement in that silly outfit you have on today either,” Amber retorted. Now, the disagreement fire has been lit and fueled, and there no telling where the blaze will spread from here.

Clearly, Susan started the whole thing…was totally at fault…and was very inconsiderate in her comments to her friend.  Amber had every right to react as she did, to respond in a hurtful (self defense) way. When Amber relayed these circumstances to her mom and dad that night, most parents would not only have stood up for her, but would have put all of the blame on Susan. They might instruct her, “Well, you should just stay away from Susan until she comes to you and apologizes.” Logical instructions, most of us would agree. But, is this the best thing for these two parents to teach Amber as a result if this situation?

We don’t think so. Here is a perfect opportunity to teach Amber what a powerful tool apologizing can be and how important it is sometimes to take the first step to heal the situation even when you did not cause it to happen. Instead, mom and dad should help Amber understand that, although her reactive comments were justified, they give her the opportunity to be the one to apologize to Susan first. When Amber approaches Susan and says, “Susan, I’m so sorry I reacted the way I did yesterday…I shouldn’t have flared up and shot back at you like that way.” What do you think will happen about 90% of the time – maybe a 100% – when the situation is handled this way? Right…Susan will quickly go into apologizing mode herself and say something like, “Amber, I was the one who started this. I’m so sorry for what I said…I do apologize for causing this problem.” The point is that Amber, by taking the initiative to apologize first healed the entire situation. This was something that she was not required to do, but it was, in fact, a great choice that did a lot of good for both of the girls.

In all likelihood, Susan and Amber will be even closer friends as a result of both of them having the opportunity to apologize. We all know that two heads are better than one, but two apologies – when shared sincerely – have a way of significantly improving the connection inside a developing friendship. We, as parents, need to teach our children this – that as a result of the choice to apologize first, people can use this wonderful tool even when they aren’t required to do so.

Granting Forgiveness

This brings us to the forgiveness end of things. As forgiveness is a feeling that, to some extent, must come voluntarily from the giver, it is difficult to teach…especially to young children. This will not be an easy project for you, and it will likely take you many tries, possibly many actual experiences, over an extended period to convey this understanding to your child. There are no five steps to follow to accomplish this task, but here are some points that you can discuss with your children in your own way to help them understand forgiveness and be able to implement it in their own life.

It Takes Some Work to ForgiveClearly, it is easier for one to apologize than it is for the one who was harmed or hurt to actually forgive the other party. So, make sure your child understands that forgiveness is not an easy thing to offer…it will take an extra effort on their part to genuinely provide this feeling to their friend. However you elect to explain it, it takes a big person to actually forgive someone else for what they have done.

It May Take Some Time to Fully ImplementThere may be an adjustment period involved. It’s quite common, among both children and adults, to hear one apologize but to refuse to forgive immediately. Finding a new balance in a relationship sometimes requires a period of time after an apology. Some individuals withdraw to protect ourselves. It’s important to teach this potential timing to your children…that some things are not easily or quickly forgiven. If they have done the harm, their job is to apologize and also amend their future actions. However, the other person is responsible for forgiving and they may require some extra time to fill their end of the bargain.   

Someday, the Shoe Will Be on the Other Foot.  Your child will gain forgiveness understanding if you make sure that he/she understands that there will be many times in their lives when they will need forgiveness for something they have done. There are two schools of thought approaching forgiveness. One is that forgiveness is a decision, the other is that forgiveness requires a process. Research bears out that the people discharge bad feelings associated with a harm done better through a process. And, the forgiveness process includes empathy, just like apology does.

The World Doesn’t Always Offer Good Examples.  Whether your child sees these on the TV or via their connections to the Internet, they are inundated with conflicts and problems that exist throughout the world. In addition, they witness major political differences here at home where apologies and forgiveness don’t seem to exist. These situations make your job even tougher. Don’t try to ignore these situations as they may have a bigger impact on your child’s feelings than you actually know. Instead, just be honest with them about these and explain that much more forgiveness is needed…and that the build up can start with them.

Usually Triggered by an ApologyIt is important for children to recognize that forgiveness as a behavior typically begins with an apology. Focusing on forgiveness alone puts the cart before the horse. Children need to learn to reconcile with the other party. You need to teach them that when the other child apologizes, it is, in effect, a call to action for them. Just as learning to read doesn’t begin by opening a book, learning to forgive starts with training to empathize with hurts caused and to respond in a forgiving way when the other party says, "I’m sorry".

Forgiveness is HealthyThose who hold harms forever and ruminate on them are most in danger for health problems. Rumination is a powerful piece of psychological distress, which takes its toll physically, and those who ruminate have a more difficult time forgiving at all levels. Ruminating behaviors have been linked with coronary heart disease. Those who hold a grudge, or fantasize about revenge, sustain a level of stress that leads to physical sickness and heart problems. Help your children understand that it is, in fact, more healthy for them to let go.

Teaching forgiveness will test your metal and present you with many challenging moments as you work to develop your child into a responsible adult. Not an easy job, but keep the things mentioned above in mind as you teach this important quality to your children.

One Last Point: Apology and Forgiveness Prevention

There is one more thing that you should keep in mind as you teach these tools to your children. For lack of a better term, we will call it the keep your mouth closed technique. There are many, many occasions throughout life when we can prevent the need for an apology and for forgiveness by simply not saying anything in the first place, and keeping our opinion to ourselves.  With dozens of news/opinions on TV these days, even more available via the Internet, and zillions of blogs and social media outlets where almost anyone can offer their opinion about any and everything, your child is being conditioned that it’s okay to speak out about anything. However, freedom of speech is one thing, but when it is used to hurt someone or to speak up about something that you know very little about, you can cause difficulties and disagreements. Children, and many adults for that matter, need to learn to pick their spots when they should say something, and when they should not.

The Importance of this Task

In the Better Parenting section of the site, we offer an article titled So, What Will You Teach Your Children?  These are extremely important qualities for children to learn and, without question, can help children have a much more enjoyable life if practiced effectively. 

We stress to all parents that teaching these qualities to their children should be high on their list. Children who learn the resiliency that comes with the twin skills of peace making – apology and forgiveness – are the children most able to negotiate successful relationships throughout a lifetime. 

Written by Heidi Densmore
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Apologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value the relationship more than your ego. Positive Outlooks