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Teaching Kids To Apologize

The High Holidays are the perfect time to instruct children in the art of saying ‘I’m sorry’—and meaning it

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(Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original images Shutterstock)

In an election year, it’s not easy to be your best self. Here we are, urging children to think about being moral and ethical, to consider the way we treat our fellow human beings, to inhabit the spirit of the Days of Awe, while our political leaders are metaphorically slapping the crap out of each other. It doesn’t help that this is also the month that most kids went back to school, causing adults to become more harpy-like than usual. We’re screaming at our children to go to sleep so they’ll be refreshed for school, hectoring them to stop dilly-dallying and get out the door in the mornings, noodging them to get into the habit of doing homework again.

So, the stretch of time from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is a great opportunity to hit the reset button—a chance for kids and parents alike to disengage from the quotidian world and focus on menschiness. As we adults start taking stock of our own behavior, asking forgiveness and apologizing for our misdeeds, it’s a good time to show our kids how to do the same thing. Teaching your kids to say “I’m sorry”—and perhaps even mean it—is no small task. But as some smart Jewish mensch once said, “If not now, when?”

Every Rosh Hashanah, my family participates in a Tashlich (“casting off”) ceremony, which involves throwing our sins into a body of water. Since sins are not corporeal or substantial (except, perhaps for that tribal-print padded-shoulder poly-elastane dress I bought for shul in a moment of dementia), we throw bread as representations of behavior we want to leave behind in the new year. In my family, we also do crafts, because I am just that kind of nerd. This year, we’re going to try something new: using my new favorite thing, food-safe markers (purchased last Hannukah for making edible dreidels a la my crafting idol, Bible Belt Balabusta) so we can write and illustrate our regrets directly on pieces of bread: “I didn’t include everybody.” “I don’t always do what I promise.” “I roll my eyes when I’m annoyed.” (That’s the regret I’ll be writing.) Then we’ll throw them into the river. The girls will no doubt wad each slice into a tight ball, staining their hands with food coloring that will not come out until at least Sukkot, a tangible reminder of the things they feel sorry about from the past year.

It’s a good idea to have some upbeat, fun activities planned, so your kids don’t think the High Holidays are only meant to make us feel bad about ourselves. Make apple prints for Rosh Hashanah and use them to create a cheat-sheet of blessings for your kids, as Bible Belt Balabusta suggests. Take your kids’ Harry Potter Lego mini-figs and make them tiny shofars out of Play-Doh, or little white kittels out of Kleenex. Think about mitzvah projects to do together between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: visiting an elderly relative, picking a charity to support as a family, making tzedakah boxes together. Read a creepy, scary holiday classic like Gershon’s Monster by Eric Kimmel (PJ Library has a terrific list of other Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur books for kids). Or make your own MadLibs with the Yom Kippur story of Jonah (“Jonah was swallowed by a [insert adjective here] fish”—hilarity ensues!). The possibilities are endless.

But once the games are over, if you want to keep discussing what it means to be sorry, there are two children’s poetry books that use William Carlos Williams’ poem “This Is Just To Say” (the one that starts “I have eaten/ the plums/ that were in/ the icebox”) as a jumping-off point for exploring apologies. You can glean lots of teachable moments from both. The more recent of the two, Forgive Me, I Meant To Do It: False Apology Poems by Gail Carson Levine (best known as the author of Ella Enchanted) takes a jokier approach. It’s full of poems, many purportedly by characters in fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and folk songs, expressing extremely insincere regret. For instance:

This Is Just To Say

I baked
a cottage
made all
of gingerbread

which
you and your sister
will be unable to resist

Forgive me
I am hungry
and I prefer my food
young

Levine points out that the original Williams poem involves a half-assed apology (the narrator is pretty self-justifying; dude, it doesn’t matter if the plums were so sweet and so cold! You knew she was saving them for breakfast!) and so are the snarky and passive-aggressive apologies in this volume. It’s a quick, fun read, appropriate for the season, and a great way to talk about what makes a lousy apology. (“I’m sorry I hit you, but you were being annoying” is bad; “I’m sorry I hit you; no matter how angry I was, getting physical was wrong” is better.)

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Lauren Deutsch says:

I think that apologizing is easy for folks who don’t see the bigger picture and don’t really take responsibility for their actions … and for those who do.

Even in Australia says:

I wrote about both books of apology poems, too, here: http://eveninaustraliakidlit.blogspot.com/2011/11/real-poems-by-fictional-children.html and here: http://eveninaustraliakidlit.blogspot.com/2012/07/library-round-up-6.html (toward the bottom). I loved Sidman’s and didn’t care for Levine’s. I think some of the Sidman poems are appropriate for younger children – it just requires an adult to choose them judiciously. I actually thought a lot of Levine’s poems were for older kids – a lot of the references went over my kids’ heads.

marjorie ingall says:

Australia, I look forward to reading your blog posts! Sorry I’m just checking back — I lamely often forget to read comments after a couple of days.

Stephens' California says:

I’ve told my children that merely saying “I’m Sorry” is an excuse for that which they did. I told them if they’re sincere then make amends by changing your behavior. To my mind “i’m Sorry” just means until the next time I do it a again.

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Teaching Kids To Apologize

The High Holidays are the perfect time to instruct children in the art of saying ‘I’m sorry’—and meaning it