Apologies are a sticky wicket for many of us. We often disown responsibility when other people’s feelings are hurt. Still, the ability to forgive others, and to ask forgiveness for ourselves, is a valuable skill for interpersonal relationships. It helps to know how apologies work and what makes them successful.
In On Apology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), Aaron Lazare writes about the history of apologies and their fate in our time. He dissects examples involving nations and famous people, showing us how apologies can fail and how to make sure they succeed. According to Lazare, apologies help heal wounds and repair damage in seven ways:
- They restore self-respect and dignity
- They reassure everyone that certain values are shared
- They affirm that the offense at issue was not the victim’s fault
- They promise the victim safety in future transactions
- They provide a chance to see the offender suffer
- They compensate for the harm caused by the offense
- They make possible a meaningful dialogue with the offender
As you might guess, some apologies never happen because no one agrees on who did what. One reason may be that everyone sees things differently, and none of us wants to treat someone else’s point of view as more valid than our own. Maybe we are afraid of looking foolish and want to avoid feeling guilt and shame. Then, too, we may feel uncomfortable owning a mistake that could mean we owe someone something.
Sometimes apologies permit valued relationships with friends and family members to get back on track and move forward. Sometimes the opportunity to apologize and make amends assumes great significance because it allows offenders to reenter society as productive members.
Since everyone makes mistakes, we all need to be able to accept them, learn from them, and move forward in our relationships with each other. Precisely for this reason, it’s essential that we teach our children from an early age how to say they are sorry. A good apology has several key ingredients.
A good apology must be heartfelt and sincere, must express the intention not to repeat the offense in the future, and must offer to repair the damage done. Sometimes an explanation is also needed. We need to teach youngsters that it’s important to include these parts.
Children also need to understand in every case how their actions affect others. A youngster may dismiss shoplifting in Sports Authority, for example, as hurting no one, since corporations and department stores tend to be huge, impersonal presences. But if we bring the child face to face with an owner, a manager, or some other stakeholder, we can personalize the offense.
Once the child sees that her action has harmed someone, she needs to do more than just mumble an “I’m sorry” that is quickly forgotten. In each case the victim gets to decide how sincere the offender seems. We are all familiar with slippery, unsatisfactory phrases like “I apologize for whatever I did” or “I’m sorry if you took offense at what I said.” The offender must say she’s sorry and mean it.
Children also need to promise not to make the same mistake again, so that their apologies reaffirm the values we all share. “When those who have offended us refuse to acknowledge their behaviors as unacceptable,” Lazare writes, “we may feel we can no longer count on the trustworthiness, predictability, and support that we always took for granted.”
Last and most important, the offender must compensate the victim for harm suffered. A good apology must include a question such as “How can I make it up to you?” When offenders make good in ways that victims find satisfactory, a power shift occurs. The victim, with renewed self-respect and dignity, can then decide whether or not to forgive.
Adults should welcome the chance to apologize to children when it is appropriate to do so. The example we grownups set by our own behavior is the most powerful teacher! Children who know how to say they’re sorry will be well equipped to repair personal relationships throughout their lifetimes. They will know how to accept mistakes-their own and those of others-and they will understand the importance of forgiveness.