Today as I introduced my youngest two girls, second grade and kindergarten, to the words and world of coding. We focused on algorithms, step-by-step instructions that we program into computers or robots. Artificial Intelligence doesn’t have a brain like we do. If we aren’t clear or we leave steps out, the computer won’t know what to do. Along with my oldest two children, who are in sixth and fourth grades, we thought of all the algorithms we perform for our daily lives. Then, I gave them a boxed cookie recipe and their assignment was to work together to make something delicious. We talked about the instructions that weren’t there, like washing our hands, making sure the kitchen was clean, and cleaning up afterward. We’re humans and we can do that, but even as humans we need to learn the routines first.
It got me thinking about the algorithms of apologies. For years we’ve been teaching our kids to say things like, “sorry for being mean” when they get into disagreements. We even tell them to accept apologies! Often we make our kids do this when they are still really angry and upset. So they say the words, “sorry” and “it’s okay” when they’re really not feeling sorry or ready to forgive.
In my children’s book, the I’m Sorry Story, I try to help young people, and any person reading my book, to see that words like “sorry” or “it’s okay” don’t mean anything when we force our kids to apologize and forgive. Our intentions as parents and educators are very good. We want our children and students to learn how to take ownership of their mistakes and not unfriend every person they disagree with in life. We know that in order to be successful citizens, employees, and form successful relationships we know how important genuine apologies are in the grand scheme of life!
However, maybe it’s time to really take a look at the old algorithm. For instance, the practice of bringing two or more young people together after a fight or argument and we say, “Now tell them you’re sorry.” Wait, what if they aren’t feeling sorry yet? Isn’t that important? Yes! When I’ve talked to young people all over the world after reading my story, 100% of them know what it feels like to hear and say a forced apology.
They know when it’s fake.
They agree it means nothing.
Let’s allow for a cooling-off period. Let’s throw in wait time. It could be an hour, a day, or whatever time it needs. Stealing a pencil or favorite Pokemon card might need thirty minutes of cooling downtime, but gossiping and telling lies about someone might need days or more.
In the meantime, let’s talk with our young people. Let them tell us how they are feeling. Let them process the hurt, anger, and even guilt or remorse. Let’s be non-judgemental and ask guiding questions (when appropriate) like “When ____happened, how did you respond?” “When ____happened, what emotion did you feel more of, anger, sadness, fear, confusion (etc.)?” Or “Now that ____ time has passed, how are you feeling?” or “How have your emotions changed?”
Whatever we ask our young people, we need to focus on questions that help them understand their emotions and actions without adding more guilt. Genuine emotions are not wrong or bad. I learned many years ago that natural stress regarding deadlines or getting paid helps us complete necessary jobs! In the same way, helping our young people feel their genuine emotions will help guide them to sincere apologies. OR NOT. My belief is that a fake apology is worse than no apology.
We can do the same for helping our students process forgiveness. They need to understand it’s their choice. We need to help them understand that forgiveness is healing but it doesn’t need to be hurried. Often we hear people say “it’s okay” when someone apologizes, but it’s not okay for people to hurt us, and when we force kids to “accept” apologies on a timeline that has not allowed them to process their true emotions, their response of “it’s okay” is their way of appeasing us.
A Better Algorithm for Apologies
The algorithm of apologies and forgiveness are as complex as we are. Helping young people put voice and words to emotions are going to help them long-term, but forcing them to say what we want them to say when we want them to say it, doesn’t do anything helpful in regards to learning how to process the sincerity of both actions. It also takes away their free will and grows people who are confused why others aren’t ready to accept their apologies or who were never really taught how to forgive and heal.
We can do better by our children and students. We can do better for all the people in our lives. One of the most important things we can add to the algorithm is time to process and be genuine. And beyond giving our students the proper words of apologies, the best way we can teach them this process is to model it with our own behavior. When we put more emphasis on the reality of hurting and healing and get away from rote words, and then show up with a genuine apology that truly helps another person heal, we’ve modeled something that is priceless. Consistently, over time, with our modeling and words to help their own process of emotions, we are giving our children and students a true-to-life lesson in genuine apologies and forgiveness.
Use coupon code SORRY for 20% off a paperback copy of I'm Sorry Story in the EduMatch Publishing Store through April 8th, 2021.
Melody McAllister is a mom of five, educator, blogger, and author. She and her family left the DFW area to live out a new adventure in Alaska! Melody has been a classroom teacher for mostly upper elementary but is now a home educator for her four oldest children. Melody also blogs regularly at alicekeeler.com/blog and hosts a weekly bookchat on her Facebook page and YouTube: bit.ly/mjmcalliwrites.
Melody originally wrote the I’m Sorry Story to help her fifth graders understand how to take responsibility for hurtful words and make sincere amends with friends. Inclusivity is at the heart of the illustrations and font. It’s a great conversation starter and includes activities and questions as a follow-up for teachers and parents. She loves visiting with classes and sharing her story for a read-aloud! This story is great for all ages! You can find it at bit.ly/imsorrystory.