Do you make your kids say sorry? It’s a question I’ve asked myself countless times during the various shoves, whacks, hair yanks and occasional bites I’ve dealt with over the past few years. When I was growing up, misdemeanours were immediately rectified with a parroted “Sorrrrrrry”, while we glared at each other. More serious misdemeanours involved a trip to the naughty corner, whereafter we’d meet, hands out, and recite “Make friends, make friends, never never break friends, if you do you’ll catch the flu and that will be the end of you”.
It worked. My sister is still my best friend (and I’m terrified to break that in case I actually die.)
When toddlers first start grappling with each other, of course we tend to apologise for them – alleviating our own embarrassment and the potential anger of the ‘wronged’ child’s parent. But even when they are able to apologise for themselves, genuinely apologising on their behalf rather than forcing a stilted ‘sorry’ may still be the most painless way to smooth over troubled waters and help everyone quickly move on.
When my eldest got to the snatchy and grabby and occasionally hitty stage, I read a lot about the importance of modelling a genuine apology, and began to notice the many ways that children find to ‘apologise’ by themselves– a toy offered as an olive branch or a quick stroke on the shoulder sometimes many, many minutes after an altercation. Although there might be a bit of shouting, or even a small tussle, usually children will resolve problems themselves – we just have to wait. An automatic ‘Sorry’ often seems to serve more to appease a parent, and does nothing to resolve the anger of the ‘aggressor’, or even to make the ‘aggressee’ feel safer. And when things are not being resolved on their own, there are many other ways to soothe a difficult situation without leaving anyone feeling like the ‘bad’ one – such as involving the ‘aggressor’ in becoming a doctor to fix the hurt they caused, or getting everyone into a big, wrestly cuddle to get out all that adrenaline.
But lately I’ve been thinking about what I’m actually modelling when I apologise. Sometimes I find myself, rather than apologising on their behalf, actually apologising for them – ‘sorry, she’s just shy’, ‘sorry, he’s a bit overenthusiastic’ – getting into the territory of apologising for their character rather than their actions. And I’ve wondered whether I apologise more easily for my daughter than my son, whether I would step in a little later if he’s in a territorial mood, whether subconsciously I accept more aggressive behaviour from my boy than from my girl.
And would their father apologise as easily as I do? I mean, we’ve had conversations about how readily I might allow another child to take something from one of my own kids, while he would be the one chasing after the kid to take it back. Like many dads, would he be more likely to encourage the sort of possessive behaviour I might apologise for?
And what are we actually apologising for? Of course, if we’ve witnessed an injury, there must be an acknowledgement of that, and an apology also shows our child that their behaviour wasn’t socially acceptable. But many times, we apologise for normal childhood behaviour. Sometimes we even apologise when it’s our child that has been wronged.
Because (not to wildly overgeneralise or anything) that’s what we do, isn’t it, us women? We apologise. We justify our statements. We tentatively present our ideas. I’ve just done it here, I couldn’t possibly say that all women apologise could I? I have to make a statement apologising for the overgeneralisation or someone might be offended.
Jennifer Lawrence brought this up in a most unapologetic way when writing for Lenny, about the gender pay gap in Hollywood. She described how easily we temper ourselves in order to not make a fuss – “All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive”. The Washington Post followed this up with this brilliant article about how different famous quotes would look if they’d been spoken by women in a meeting:
“Let my people go.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Pharaoh, listen, I totally hear where you’re coming from on this. I totally do. And I don’t want to butt in if you’ve come to a decision here, but, just, I have to say, would you consider that an argument for maybe releasing these people could conceivably have merit? Or is that already off the table?”
In fact, there have been a whole host of articles lately about how readily women apologise for themselves – both on why we should just stop apologizing, and on why we should stop telling women to stop apologizing.
Regardless of how much we apologise for ourselves, I believe we do need to consider how much we apologise for our children. Because those apologies, when we chose to give them, and to whom, all teach our children much more than we could begin to imagine about what we expect from them. And of course they’re not just witnessing the apologies on their behalf – they also witness the times we apologise when someone else bumps into us, apologise because in our sleep deprived state we’re taking forever to get out of a doorway, apologise because we didn’t have time to buy milk, or bring flowers, or bake a cake – apologise for our very existence. And, when they witness it, our little girls model it and our boys learn to expect it.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t apologise when our children bash each other over the head, or show their displeasure with a well placed shove. But if apologies are merely to smooth the water, and model social behaviour, they need be far and few between. We all parent in our unique way to our unique children. We’ll fuck them up in our own unique way. That’s nothing to apologise for.