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Sorry, Again

There’s no sure way to raise kids who apologize and accept apologies

Marjorie Ingall
September 14, 2009
Maxie says sorry.(Marjorie Ingall)
Maxie says sorry.(Marjorie Ingall)

Last year at this time, Josie’s teacher made her write a letter of apology for slapping a frenemy. This week I made Josie write a letter of apology to her bubbe. (I’m not going to share her sin here. She behaved abominably; she’s mortified; and at seven, she’s old enough to have veto power on my writing about her specific crimes.) I’m moderately sure Josie doesn’t ramp up her vileness right before the High Holidays just to give me column fodder. But she does seem to be more on a hair trigger around this time of year. Our New Year falls just as kids are experiencing stressful new beginnings—the end of summer, the stress of school starting.

Wait, I sound like I’m making excuses for my kid acting like a weenus, right? I’m not. Her actions were inexcusable. I am mortified. And like many parents, I personalize what my kid does and sometimes get confused that she and I are not the same person. (And this confusion is what leads to idiocy such as boasting about your newborn’s Apgar scores—uh, dude, your kid is not a genius for breathing successfully—as well as more insidious parenting mishegas such as the dismissal of all entitled, bratty conduct as the fault of someone else: an unsympathetic teacher, a kid who deserved to get picked on, a situation that all but forced your child to misbehave.) Like many parents, I worry that my child’s conduct reflects poorly on me. And my reaction is to push the bad stuff under the rug rather than confronting it head-on.

But that won’t fly during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In our tradition, now’s the time to take a hard look at ourselves, including our parenting. Is mine crappy? Am I raising a unrepentant, hair-trigger-temper-owning pill? (Don’t answer that.) How can I do better?

Unfortunately, research indicates that there’s no surefire way to raise a good apologizer. A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times wrote about research in which toddlers were encouraged to believe they’d broken a toy that was very special to the researcher. (Researchers: big meanies.) University of Iowa psychologists found that the kids who expressed the most guilt had the fewest behavioral problems over the next five years. This was true even for kids with poor impulse control.

But it’s important not to confuse guilt with shame. Guilt is when you feel terrible about something you’ve done; shame is when you feel you’re a terrible person. As parents, we can encourage our kids to feel guilty for their misdeeds (and indeed, as Jews, it’s our moral obligation to guilt our children as much as humanly possible) without shaming them by belittling them as human beings. There’s a big difference between “Smacking your friend was completely unacceptable—how do you think she felt? How could you have solved the problem without getting physical? How do you think you can pull yourself back from the brink next time?” and “What the hell is wrong with you?! You make me sick!” And though I wish I knew the magic words and skills to craft a morally well-developed child, there isn’t a single parenting style that correlates with raising kids who feel appropriate guilt without crippling shame.

So what’s a parent to do? Psychologist June Tangney at George Mason University recommends that when your kid misses the mark (which is, after all, the definition of the Hebrew word “chet,” frequently translated as “sin”), you should focus not just on the bad deed but on helping the kid make amends. (The High Holidays are not only about saying you’re sorry, but also about working not to repeat the same mistake again.) Josie tends to curl inward after an outburst, so embarrassed about her conduct that she has trouble talking about it. Which means she has trouble getting out the words, “I’m sorry.” (Maxine has no such trouble. At four, she blithely views “I’m sorry!” as a get-out-of-jail-free card. As long as she says it, she thinks she’s in the clear. Wrong-o, kid.) As for Josie: I made her apologize to Bubbe; I often talk about my own values; I apologize myself when I lose my temper. Basically, I do what the parenting experts say. And I still don’t know how everything’s going to turn out. Parenting often feels like you’re flying blind.

At this time of year we’re not only supposed to apologize; we’re supposed to accept the apologies of others. And for some kids, including Josie, neither is easy. (Hey, she’s descended from a long line of seethers.) But as Rabbi David Wolpe once wrote, “The grudge perches on the heart like a gargoyle on a parapet.” Echoing the same sentiment, Buddha supposedly said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.” Buddha and David Wolpe should totally have dinner.

But children love feeling persecuted. They love wailing “That’s not faaaaaaair!” Our job is to teach them that life isn’t fair, and though sometimes people wrong us, we have to forgive. “There’s a wealth of literature saying that harboring resentments and grudges takes a toll on your psychological and physical health,” Christopher Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies character strengths and happiness, told me in an interview. “Yes, you may be pissed off. But if you can let go, you are doing yourself a favor, not the other person. You don’t have to forget; you just have to choose to let the emotional burden go.” In Judaism, we’re supposed to accept all genuine apologies, which isn’t always easy for the young. Or, for that matter, the not-so-young.

So how to keep kids from ruminating about being wronged? How to encourage them to forgive? One strategy is to tell them about a time when we ourselves did wrong and were forgiven. Josie loves to hear the story about the time when I was in college and missed a flight to meet my parents at a family wedding. I called my dad expecting him to scream at me, but he could tell I felt terrible, and simply suggested ways to fix the problem.

It’s hard not to get worked up when we or our kids screw up. It’s tempting to lash out or look for blame. But doing that would really be missing the mark.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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