My son began school when he was just 3 years old at a renowned public charter school. Despite the academically irreproachable curriculum, the mistake I made of forcing him into their institution so early became clear soon. Young children were required to adhere to a suffocating schedule, so rigidly structured that its goal of producing an environment conducive to rigorous learning became impossible as teachers lost valuable time repeatedly interrupting their teaching to address preschoolers and kindergartners who threw tantrums as rebellion against the unnatural expectations to sit still following along to intense lessons for hours.
My son, an only child at the time who was accustomed to my loosely-structured home, suffered. Every single day for the entire year he was in pre-K3, I received a call or three about his behavior. One day in particular, his behavior was so disruptive that the principal informed me he had to be picked up for the day.
When I arrived, I went to speak with his teacher to find out all that had happened. He had ripped up library books, ran around the room literally screaming and even flipped some chairs. The teacher went on to explain that when my baby finally calmed down, she had him stand at the front of the room to apologize to the class for his riotous episode which had halted their day for more than 20 minutes.
“Did he ask to apologize?” I inquired. “It’s just classroom policy, ” she replied smiling. “We like the children to be accountable to their classmates by issuing an apology. We’ve found it helps the children not isolate children who exhibit behavioral problems and teaches the children that their actions also hurt their classmates.”
“I appreciate that,” I informed her, “but going forward, he is never to be forced to issue an apology to the class or anyone.” His teacher looked stunned and asked why. I told her that I had to get my baby home, but that I would arrive early the next morning to give her the explanation she deserved that would make it apparent why forcing children, especially and specifically my child, was unacceptable.
While I was certainly frustrated, saddened and and concerned about my child’s behavior, and worried about what was causing him to act out trumped all of those feeling, and while I felt that the other children in the classroom did not deserve to have their classroom experience negatively affected, no one was about to have my son in the habit of apologizing on demand. As much as his peers may have deserved an apology, it was the job or place of his teachers to use their authority to force my son into expressing sorrow he had not arrived at organically or had not arrived at-at all. In general, we must stop making our children say “sorry.”
Sorrow is an emotion one only truly feels, and as such can only properly express, once they have accepted that their actions were wrong. In spite of popular opinion to the contrary, a person’s actions being hurtful, especially to a loved one, are not synonymous with them being wrong. One can perform a necessary action, that hurts but is not wrong. Causing someone pain does not always make them the worthy recipient of an apology.
Now that is not to say that actions which are hurtful are not most often also wrong. It is to say that a person’s actions should be examined to see whether they are one or both of those. Children should learn this lesson early, and Black children must learn this lesson earliest since they are usually taught that their very existence is not only hurtful and wrong but requires constant apology.
So what about those instances when we are both hurtful and wrong? In those instances, we want children to apologize. Still, they should not be forced to do so. They should not escape appropriate consequences for their actions, but a forced apology is never an appropriate consequence.
Children who learn to apologize as knee jerk reaction become adults who do not have the ability to truly reflect on how their behavior is harmful. They also begin believing that “sorry” absolves them of responsibility and immediately stops the effects of their actions. They do not learn that they are still responsible for how they’ve hurt others., They do not learn that those they’ve wronged do not owe them absolution. They do not learn that “I’m sorry” is not a complete apology nor does it express why they regret their actions.
Little boys forced to apologize become men who use their empty apologies to gaslight and disarm their partners. This is why we end up with men who think their habitual emotional, mental and even physical abuse of women they claim to love is forgiven — must be forgiven — once they issue the “sorry” they deem a fair reparation. This is how we end up with abusers who never hold themselves accountable for abuse.
I want my children to want to apologize. I want them to assess how what they did was detrimental or otherwise harmed others. I want them to think. I want them to first ask if they were hurtful and then ask themselves if they were wrong. I want them to understand they are not always responsible for others’ feelings. I want to raise children who apologize because they intend to change their behavior. I want to raise free thinkers who learn something from their own mistakes.
And I want us all to raise children who aren’t just saying “I’m sorry,” but are expressing their sorrow. I want us teaching our children what a true apology sounds like. I want us showing our children that an apology cannot be mandated. I want us to raise children who express sorrow and don’t just say “I’m sorry.”