I hear it from parents and teachers every day.

“Say you’re sorry.”

It comes flying out of the nearest adult’s mouth every time some kid stomps on someone’s toes, pushes a boy in line for the drinking fountain, knocks over a classmate’s prized Lego structure, or spills milk in her brother’s plate of pancakes.

By the time most kids are in second or third grade, it has been drilled into them and apologizing has become a reflex reaction to every accidental or purposeful injury to another’s physical or mental feelings.

Bump – “Sorry!”

Stomp – “Sorry!”

Smack – “Sorry!”

Insult – “Sorry!”

Sometimes I see parents and teachers attempting to go past the one-word apology.  They try to instill a more complex response – one I recently saw in written form was something like:  “I am sorry that I [blank].  I know it made you feel [blank].  Next time I will [blank] instead.”  Good try.  But I’m still not buying it.

It has been my experience that when you have hurt someone, physically or emotionally, there is only one thing that will make it right between you and that person.  And that one thing is this:


I believe this so strongly that I say it in capital letters to my son whenever he does something hurtful, to himself or someone else, whether accidentally or on purpose.


Because all the other parts of even the most sincere and complex apology don’t really fix the problem.  When someone says they are sorry, even with a lot of modern psychobabble attached, let’s face it – you do not feel okay about it until time enough has passed that you know that they are honestly trying to change their behavior.  The words mean nothing except that they have learned to apologize.  And I don’t care about that when I’ve been hurt – I care only that it not happen again.

I remember when my son was four and I was mad at him for something and he actually said “But Mom!  I said I’m sorry!”, as though that should have fixed everything and my mood should have instantly been sunshine and roses again.  I had to explain to him that I would be mad until I wasn’t mad anymore, and I didn’t know how long that would be, and that his best option was to stop talking about it, let me have some space, and (say it with me, folks) DON’T DO IT AGAIN.

I believe this so strongly that I probably upset people when they expect an apology from me and instead get “I won’t do that again.”  People have been trained to expect the apology.  They want you to actually say the words “I’m sorry”.  Sometimes they want you to go into detail about how bad you feel.  They want you to make appeasement gestures like a bonobo chimp.  They may want you to bring them flowers or a card.  But when all of that is said and done, they are still not going to be comfortable until time has gone by – time without you repeating your offense.  Maybe a short time for a small offense (bumping someone in line), probably a very long time for a huge offense (an extramarital affair).

Not only do I not want my son thinking that “sorry” is a magic word that gets him off the hook…  I also don’t want him to think that it’s a magic word that lets other people off the hook.  If someone does something to him, I don’t want him turning around and trusting that person the next minute because he heard the word “sorry”.  I’d rather he was a little skeptical and careful about that person for a while.

When I see people bringing flowers (or a six pack of beer) to someone as an apology, I have to wonder:  Does the person being apologized to actually think all is instantly well?  Has that person been brainwashed by the “apology cult” into thinking the flowers make everything okay?  If so, that’s a sad thing indeed.  If not – if the person being given the flowers is still going to wait whatever time is necessary for the hurt to heal – then what are the flowers for?  I suspect they are a power play – “Look!  I made him give me flowers!  I am important and I have power!”  Or maybe the person just really likes flowers and figures “This whole thing is going to take time to blow over, but I might as well get some flowers in the meantime.”  It’s become a joke – when a man buys flowers for a woman and it’s not her birthday, Valentine’s Day, or their anniversary, how often does he get asked “What did you do?”  It’s a disingenuous power play, disguised as a healing act.

I don’t want my son to grow into a man thinking that insults and injuries to his person by a friend or romantic partner can be instantly healed with a couple of words and a token gift.  I also don’t want him to think that forgiveness is owed to him in exchange for a bouquet, a ring, or a pretty speech.

I guess the best immediate response to use and to teach my son would be “I’m sorry, I won’t do that again”, since it conforms to the social expectation of the other person while reminding him of what is truly important…  changing his actions.

On the other hand, if you truly do plan on doing it again, save everyone time and don’t bother apologizing – instead ask the person if they are willing to tolerate your behavior, and if the answer is “no”, write that relationship off and move on, because it’s not going to work out.


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