I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!

I have always wanted to raise children who are thoughtful, kind, and considerate: I want to help them grow into humans who are capable of thinking of someone other than themselves; to be helpers. We need all the helpers we can get in this world.

There’s not much beyond that, as far as expectations. I don’t care what professions they decide on, whether they choose to go to college or not, whether they raise families, play sports, move away or stay close to home. Those are their choices to make, and I will do my best to support without influencing overmuch.

But good manners, at a minimum, and genuine compassion, as an ideal, are my goals for my children.

When my son was young, I wanted to teach him the concept of accountability. Even at a young age, I wanted him to understand that if he made a choice that was disrespectful, or unkind, or that hurt someone, he needed to acknowledge it, and say “I’m sorry.” So when he threw a ball at another kid’s head on the playground, he was expected to go over, apologize and try to remember not to make the same choice next time. He caught on fast.

Too fast.

Kids are smart: they’re wily. They know how to outmaneuver us.

My young son soon realized that if he made a bad choice, as long as he said sorry, all would be forgiven. He started preemptively saying “I’m sorry!” the second he: hit his sister, stole a toy, did something he was expressly told not to, etc.

“I’m sorry” became the way out of consequences.

I’m a slower learner than my son: it took me a while to realize this was happening. But when I did, I was horrified. I had effed it up: in my attempt to help my son become an accountable and responsible human, I had instead given him the keys to bad behavior.  “Do whatever you want, just say ‘I’m sorry’ when you’re done” was the unintended message he received.

By the time my son was 3, (AKA, a “threenager”) it got to the point that, the moment he would engage in bad behavior (e.g., come up and snatch away a toy his sister was playing with), he would immediately chant “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” like it was some kind of twisted mantra, as he ran away chuckling.

It was like I had trained a parrot.  A parrot who could squawk, “I’m sorry” all day long, never understanding what it really meant.

I needed to do something. I started by reading some of my favorite parenting books, sites and blogs to gain some perspective (I wish I could remember some of the specific articles I read – if I can find them somewhere in my bookmarks I’ll update this post at a later date. I’m experiencing mommy brain at the moment, however. I think this was around the time I discovered Janet Lansbury’s parenting philosophies, though, which have proven incredibly helpful for a wide variety of parenting challeges.)

I started by responding differently to my son’s behavior – instead of telling him how to respond, I demonstrated it.

Rather than saying, “Gavin, go apologize!” when he chucked a Lego at his sister, I would take the focus away from the behavior (momentarily), and instead go over to his sister, ask her if she was ok, and if she wanted a hug. Then I would ask Gavin if he would like to come check on her, too, because it scared and hurt her when she got hit by a Lego (the whole point being compassion and empathy – caring about and understanding how someone else feels). He would usually join me in consoling his sister, hugging her and checking on her. After we had addressed the feelings of the other person, it was time for a “time-out”; not for Gavin, but for the toy. “Gavin, since you chose not to respect this toy, it has to take a 2 minute time-out before you can play with it again. I hope you make a different choice when you are able to play with your Legos again.” (Trying to focus on the consequence for the choice he made – which, I realized was the piece that was missing from “I’m sorry.” Saying “I’m sorry” is not a consequence – losing your Legos for 2 minutes, which is an eternity for a preschooler, is.)

When the infraction was more along the lines of not listening (is it just me, or do 3-year olds magically lose the power of comprehension overnight? It’s like he could no longer understand the words coming out of my mouth), I would respond differently.

Mornings, getting ready for preschool, are the worst. While trying to get everyone herded out the door, I would ask my son to please put his socks and shoes on repeatedly: it’s like he has short-term memory loss. He can remember a walk we took a year ago, the one where we saw an ant hill and he found a cool stick, but he can’t remember why he walked into his bedroom 3 seconds ago. So instead of putting his socks on as requested, he would play with toys, or pull books off the shelf. I would walk into his room and exclaim, “Gavin, what did I ask you to do?” He genuinely could not remember. Instead he would default to: “I’m sorry, mommy!” – and then continue not putting his socks on. Maddening, truly.

In these situations, I would crouch down low, and I would quietly repeat the instruction: “Gavin, please look at me. I need you to get your socks on, please. Then I need you to put your shoes on.” Then I would ask for confirmation: “Yes, mommy, I hear you. I understand.” Just for good measure, I would ask, “Ok, what are you going to do now?” “I’m going to put on socks and shoes.” It’s not a fool-proof tactic, but it’s effectiveness rate is substantially higher. We’re getting there.

One of the biggest lessons of this whole experience for me has been observing how I handle my own missteps: I have always been quick to say “I’m sorry.” I don’t like hurting people and always regret when my choices cause harm. I’ve also been at times impetuous and thoughtless. I’m finally learning how to slow down and think before I act, but I’m also 40 years old now, so there many years of impulsive choices that led up to now.

In those moments, sometimes, “I’m sorry” is appropriate. Many times, however, there are better options. I’m learning to ask someone to tell me how they feel – and listening, no mater how uncomfortable it may be, rather than just apologizing to them and hoping it will all go away. Feelings are tricky, and oftentimes when we know we’ve done wrong, it can be hard to face up to that. None of us like to think of ourselves as the bad guy. And yet . . . sometimes we are that person, the one who did something hurtful or mean.

Parenting is humbling. Before I had kids, I thought I knew things.

Now I know that I’m just a learner, right alongside my kids. I’ve had more life experiences than they have, of course, and I’ve gained valuable insights from them. But I am far from wise. Even when I think I’m doing the best thing, I sometimes need to re-asses my approach, and learn new ways of doing things. It’s refreshing, really. I hope I can always be a learner: I hope I can learn to be uncomfortable, to sit with complicated feelings, and process the lessons from my mistakes, instead of just glossing over life’s messy moments with “I’m sorry.”

Maybe someday my daughter will also teach me how to dance. 🙂

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