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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)

The other apology-poems book, This Is Just To Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness by Joyce Sidman (who won a Newbery Honor last year), is a masterpiece. I don’t use that word lightly. It’s for an older audience than the Levine book; adults will appreciate it as much as or more than kids, and children under 9 or 10 won’t get much out of it at all. The conceit is that a sixth-grade class has written apology poems with their teacher, Mrs. Merz. (All the poems are by Sidman.) The first half of the book consists of the apology poems; the second half is the poetic responses the kids get back when they give their poems to the people they’ve wronged (or when the wronged party is a statue or hamster or emotionally absent parent, another member of the school community crafts a response poem). It sounds more complicated than it is: a mix of poems both serious and hysterical, a portrait of a caring community, and a nuanced portrayal of how hard it can be to apologize and to forgive—delivered in a variety of poetic forms. I just read it for the seventh time and cried for the seventh time. (Hey, you try to resist an “I’m sorry” poem to a dog you’ve had to put to sleep, or a poem by a child who thinks her father abandoned the family because she cried too much as a baby.) But there’s hilarity here, too: a poem for two voices from two boys who are lethal dodge-ball ninjas is a delight.

The two books together made me think: What if we encouraged kids to write their own poems of apology? Many elementary-school-aged kids are obsessed with rhyming couplets and haiku (5-7-5! Who doesn’t love to count syllables?)—what a great way to apologize to those we’ve wronged. Our liturgy is full of acrostic poems (one we recite on Yom Kippur is the Ashamnu, a litany of sins in alphabetical order); why not ask kids to use the letters in their own names as the start of an acrostic poem about remorse and forgiveness?

This is an older-kid project, obviously. (Hey, I write what I know.) For very little kids, I think the most important Yom Kippur work is to be consistently prompted to say the words “I’m sorry.” I do not agree with the experts who say you shouldn’t make toddlers apologize if they don’t mean it; if you do your parenting job right, the expression of the sentiment ultimately leads to the actual feeling. But as kids get older, they should have an understanding of nuance: What if you still feel you’re the wronged party but want to use the spirit of the High Holidays to move on? What if you are truly sorry but do not expect to be forgiven? The Sidman book shows, rather than tells, how apologies don’t fix all wrongs, how sometimes forgiveness isn’t forthcoming, but how sometimes the admission of vulnerability and honesty can heal both sides. And right now, in the chaos that is my parental and political life, vulnerability and honesty sound awfully good.

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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

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