Sorry, Not Sorry!

Portrait of writer Jennifer Schlosberg Lehr, copyright Diana Koenigsberg 2015

Parenting is never easy. And teaching youngsters how to get along with others may be one of the hardest parts of raising a child. Many parents feel compelled to force their child to apologize as a way to quickly wrap up an uncomfortable incident. I spoke to Jennifer Lehr, author of “ParentSpeak: What’s Wrong with How We Talk to Our Kids—and What to Say Instead” (Workman Publishing; $14.95) to get her take on this timely topic as the High Holy Days approach.
What do many parents typically do regarding making their children apologize that you feel is not constructive/helpful in parenting?   So often, when our children hurt another child, physically or if they hurt their feelings, many parents will prompt their child to “Say sorry!’” I think what we want is for the situation to be smoothed over as soon as possible and for the parents of the other child to know that we’re on it and we’re not happy with how our child behaved, and we definitely think their child deserves an apology.
While certainly we do this with the best of intentions, unfortunately having your child say something that they likely don’t even mean is just a Band-Aid, but doesn’t teach our children about perspective taking, communication, the importance of authenticity and perhaps most importantly, understanding what drove their behavior and what would be a better way to handle the situation the next time. When we tell our kids to say sorry, we’re jumping so many steps ahead, it does them and the other party a great disservice.

Can you please give an example of how you believe parents can effectively and meaningfully teach feeling remorse and asking for forgiveness to their children?   I’m not sure remorse is a feeling that can be taught. It is a genuine human reaction that will happen when we can see what we have done to someone else from their point of view. Perspective taking is not something we are born with. It evolves over time. Some psychologists seem to believe we are able to see a situation from another’s point of view around [age] seven. In the meantime we can help cultivate it.
  What is the negative impact of forcing a child to say I’m sorry?   I’m always struck by how unimportant it is to the
parent whether the child is truly sorry. It’s like sincerity, shmincerity, remorse, shmorse.
Overrated! Folks also don’t seem to care
why their kid did whatever he did or even how the hurt party feels about it. It’s as if it’s assumed that the “victim” should be satisfied by seeing the child forced into apologizing, and that’s that.
Not only do problems not get looked
at, but apologies get framed as a punishment, which they shouldn’t be. When we
force our kids to apologize, we skip over all
of the essential stages that often lead to a
genuine apology. The blaming. The realization of what you’ve done. The self-reflection and pangs of remorse. Working up the courage to apologize. Finding the humility. And then feeling the unparalleled relief that comes with getting the words out. Each stage has its own timeline and serves its own important purpose.
Why is apologizing a “gift” and why is it so hard for kids to do?   Apologizing is a gift because in one fell swoop it allows us to tell a friend that we value and care about them while also relieving some guilt. I think it’s hard not just for kids, but for all of us. Finding the humility and courage is a challenge—so challenging and yet so essential that the Jewish tradition gives us a full ten days each year to do it. And it’s particularly hard for children because their cognition is still developing as they learn to see a situation from another’s perspective. So it makes great sense that our tradition does not expect the same from children as it does from adults which is why the demarcation of a bar or bat mitzvah is so important. It says to a person, now that you are older, we expect you to be able to take responsibility for your actions and make amends.
What is a better, more realistic method for problem solving?   When one child hurts another, we can be of the most help when we eschew the role of playing judge and jury and instead, go more the route of mediator. What happened? What is each person’s perspective? How do they each feel? Kids run off for sure. It’s not always going to work out perfectly, but planting the seeds of communication early on and learning how to listen to the other’s POV will eventually pay off. It lays the groundwork for future problem-solving.
   What should parents say to youngsters at the High Holy Days regarding atoning for bad behavior or thoughts and asking for forgiveness?   I find it’s always helpful to share our own experiences. “You know during the High Holidays, I think about my relationship with others over the past year. It’s a really special time, because if there is anything that’s nagging at me, or someone I think I’ve hurt and never apologized, I am reminded that it is never to late to make amends.” I think being specific is also very helpful to kids. It gets them thinking!
Read more about Lehr here: _

Ronna Mandel is a contributing writer to JLife. You can find her blog at 



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