Teaching Social Norms, Part 4


One man. Two boys. Twelve kids.

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59 Responses

  1. I, too, am not a fan of “sorry.” I particularly dislike anything that essentially demands that children fraudulently state a feeling they don’t actually feel. Heck, I’m on the record as hating forced apologies from adults.

    But damned if it’s not incredibly hard to avoid demanding a faux apology from your kids when they transgress. It’s especially hard when they’ve transgressed against an adult who clearly expects that an apology will be proffered (grandparents, for example), and the pressure to produce one is notable. That said, I can always tell when Critter’s apologies are sincere vs when they are pro forma. Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Russell Saunders says:

      I should note that I thought of you and your frequent critiques of faux apologies when writing this.

      I should also clarify that I don’t forbid “sorry”. If grandma wants a sorry, then her response to, “How can I help you feel better?” can be, “I need you to say sorry.” Many children make this request because they’ve internalized that “sorry” is some sort of magically powerful word. I don’t really get it but, hey, if it makes you feel better, so be it.

      What I’m curious about (in general, not just specifically with Critter) are the messages we send the children we demand and/or accept pro forma apologies.Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to Kazzy says:

        I actually wonder if a request directly from the wronged party, rather than an adult or authority figure, is likely to produce a more sincere apology.Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to Kazzy says:

        Have you found that requests from the wronged party tend to produce a more sincere “sorry” than requests from an authority figure, e.g. you? That seems like a possibility to me, but this could be an engrained attachment to apologies on my part.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Dan Miller says:

          Sincerity is hard to judge. And, as noted, not all circumstances elicit an, “I’m sorry.” On the whole, I’d say that kids efforts seem more genuine when the request comes from peers. This might also be attributed to the fact that we do a lot of work discussing the “why” of this routine, something that is often lacking with pro forma apologies. As I see it, there is a big difference between doing something because you are told/expected to and doing something because you know it is right. When kids parrot apologies, they are mostly doing the former; in my routine, they are more often (though surely not always) doing the latter. I think it is hard to do anything sincerely if you don’t know why you’re doing it.

          For the record, I make a point to model this for my students, to the point that it is second nature. Generally, my response if erring (e.g., stepping on a child’s food while lumbering around the room), is, “I’m sorry, Johnny. How can I help you feel better?” So the “sorry” is still there in conjunction with the next step. Again, I’m not opposed to “sorry”… I just don’t think it goes far enough on its own.Report

  2. BlaiseP says:

    My kids were taught apologies without action were actually insults. I made as if to punch them in the arms, then raised my hands “Oh, sorry!”

    An apology comes in three parts.

    1. I was wrong.
    2. Here is what I did. And I have offended you.
    3. Here is what I will do about it.

    An apology does not include a statement about how you feel bad about it or how you’ll never do it again, though that might be true. It does not include an excuse. It does not make any reference to what provoked it.

    “I am sorry” is something you say to a third person, not to the offended party.Report

    • Turgid Jacobian in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Yep, those are the three parts we’re shooting for.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to BlaiseP says:

      I’m going to quibble with a bit of this, though I applaud your overall view…

      Step #2- With young children, they don’t always know that they’ve done wrong or that they’ve offended. Which is why it is important for the aggrieved party to speak to their hurt. It is one thing for me to say, “That could have hurt someone,” but quite another for the victim to say, “That did hurt someone… me. Here’s how.” Ample experience in hearing that will eventually allow them to do this independently, but probably not so at 4 or 5.

      Step #3- I think it is really important that what is to be done be based on the aggrieved party. The transgressor shouldn’t set the terms of reconciliation, not unilaterally, at least. Presuming individuals of sufficient age/understanding to be able to offer this confidently that it will address the needs, I can see advocating this step. But there should always be room for the aggrieved to voice their need.

      Regarding “never doing it again”… Sometimes this is what the aggrieved child wants. While it can never be guaranteed, I think it communicates that sometimes accountability means changing future behavior, not just accounting for past behavior.

      Regarding provocation… When adjudicating such matters, I will sometimes allow it, provided we’ve completed the routine for the initial complaint (I feel like a lawyer! Watch out, Burt!).
      For example, a common exchange:
      Jimmy: Sally pushed me.
      Mr. K: [Calls Sally over.] Jimmy, tell Sally about what happened.
      Jimmy: Sally, I felt sad when you pushed me. (We call this an I-Statement)
      Sally: How can I help you feel better?
      Jimmy: I don’t want you to push me again.
      Sally: Okay. I’ll try harder.
      Mr. K: Sally, how were you feeling when you pushed Jimmy?
      Sally: I was angry because he laughed at my picture.
      Mr. K: It is easy to make bad choices when we’re angry. And it’s okay to be angry. But it is not okay to push. Do you want to talk to Jimmy about how he made you feel.
      [Rinse and repeat]
      Mr. K: Jimmy, it is not okay that Sally pushed you, but it is important to know how she was feeling when she did it. She’s going to work harder to be safe and gentle with your body. But if that is how you want people to treat you, it is important that you are safe and gentle with your feelings. Is everyone okay? Have we solved the problem?
      Jimmy/Sally: Yes.
      Mr. K: Good. Now go play. Someone is wrong on The LoOG!Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        In a nutshell, I think your 3 steps might be an ideal to strive for, but we’re only going to achieve an ability to do them independently by doing some other things first. Needs cannot be met until they are understood.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Kazzy says:

          Yeah, points well taken. My framework is more for adults than kids, though they were drilled into my kids very early. As you say, with kids, it’s sorta different, they’re learning the rules, especially in your specific context, socialisation is the most important skill anyone ever masters. And every apology must be different. As with punishment, the apology must fit the “crime”.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Well said. Sadly, I have higher expectations of children than adults.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Kazzy says:

              Children rise to the level of expectations. They’re amazingly adaptable, robust little critters. Society’s picture of children is so flawed. We act like they’re sullen little morons, incapable of what I used to call Gettin’ Right. And they’re not. They’re little green apples, they’ll turn into adults soon enough. Treat ’em like they’re responsible, it’s amazing how they’ll respond.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

      I feel bad because Blaise took my answer.Report

    • Will H. in reply to BlaiseP says:

      I typically state what it is that I am sorry for when giving an apology.
      This doesn’t always go over well.
      Something like, “I’m sorry if I offended you,” can very easily come off as some nerdish smartassery. While completely within character, as previously noted, this doesn’t always come off so well.

      Again, often is the case that such a statement would be made as a means of defusing a situation where I don’t completely understand the offense of the other party; in cases where, “Why so touchy?” might be something of an invitation to make me the aggrieved party.

      But I’m not going to say I’m sorry for something I’m not sorry for.
      I would rather just go ahead and say, “Fish you!” and let the offense be clear.

      Excess of subtleties often thwarts resolution.
      Better to be clear about such matters.Report

      • Kim in reply to Will H. says:

        I think it’s the “if” in the statement that offends. It’s minimizing the other person’s upset-ness.
        “I’m sorry. You’re clearly upset about what I said, and I never meant for that to happen.”
        — this emphasizes the other person’s problem (they’re upset — if they aren’t upset, they’ll tell you.)
        Then you can either ask for more clarification, “How/Why did my words upset you?”
        come to a different resolution.Report

  3. Murali says:

    Kazzy, I’ve got 3 things:

    Firstly, as always, this post as are all in this series is awesome.

    Secondly, I want to ask: Won’t children learn through experience that there are some things for which expressions of contrition are not enough? Also, aren’t there some things for which expressed contrition is sufficient?

    This brings me to my third point. Is there a worry that your kids could be ostracised when they enter elementary school because they are socialised differently? Or will they revert to the norm in order to fit in with their differently socialised peers? Also is there a worry that there further solicitousness may paint them as targets for bullying in elementary school?Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Murali says:

      All excellent questions.

      1.) Thanks! I really can’t express how gracious I am to hear such kind words.
      2.) How are you defining “expression of contrition”? Broadly, you are correct that some wrongs can’t be corrected. Which is why I said to Blaise above that sometimes the best response is a correction in future behavior. And if they can be corrected, it is often via action. A skinned knee warrants a fetched band-aid. A toppled block structure warrants a joint rebuilding effort. Others require less. Many times the kids simply ask for a verbal apology. If that suffices, I leave it be.
      3.) That is always a worry. Teaching presents a tension between preparing the children for the world as I wish it ought to be and preparing the children for the world as it is. This approach is much more the former. But I don’t think it ignores the latter. I don’t object to holding people accountable for their actions; I just think demanding verbal apologies doesn’t go far enough. So should they encounter a situation where a “sorry” is what is expected/required, they ought to be able to offer that. Folks might look askew at questions like, “How can I help you feel better?” but ideally they’ll recognize it for what it is: an attempt at taking proper accountability. As for the potential for abuse, that indeed is present. That is why I emphasize making reasonable requests and helping the children, both aggrieved and transgressor, in identifying them. I will say that my school has been employing more of the RC method, so this will be a broader community norm that expands beyond my classroom. I know that the kindergarten teacher, having seen the approach when her daughter was in my class, has since adopted it, a very encouraging development. And even when working with children unfamiliar with the routine, if I say, “You need to do more than say sorry. You need to make sure the person is okay, ” they usually can do so with support. They likely won’t understand the entirety of the routine nor take away some long-lasting life lesson, but because it is an extension of an existing norm rather than a turn or a pivot, it is really just asking them to do more, not different.Report

      • Murali in reply to Kazzy says:

        You are missing my point about no 2) Some wrongs are mild enough that they do not warrant more than an apology. Some of course require a “dude, how can I make it up to you”, but not all do and of course some wrongs are so serious as to be beyond reparations. But, social norms should not require a “how can I make it up to you?” as the most basic response! To demand a “What will make you feel better?” in all cases including those cases where a sorry would be enough is already overkill (at least where those “sorry-is-enough” cases are concerned)Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Murali says:

          Can you give some examples? I think that would help me better understand.Report

          • Murali in reply to Kazzy says:

            For example, if I have to push through a crowd to get off a bus, I say excuse me and then sorry if I accidentally brush against someone or jostle them a bit or even if they just have to move away a bit more. If I don’t say sorry, I am being boorish. But certainly I don’t need to say or do anything more. Now, if I actually tip someone over even by accident, that may be a different story. Certainly in a number of cases I may have to help that person up.

            So lets generalise: kids play and sometimes rough-house with each other. When one kid is running and jostles but does not hurt another kid, a sorry is enough. An additional are you okay is necessary in some cases just to establish whether or not a further obligation is necessary. It is only when the person reasonably says he is not okay, that a further how can I make it up to you or how can I make it better is required.Report

  4. zic says:

    Thank you, Kazzy.

    I am so tired of telling folk, “I”m sorry,” when they’ve experienced some sort of trial or tribulation, only to have them respond, “Well, you didn’t do anything.”

    Sorry does not mean an admission of guilt. It’s an expression of empathy for another’s pain.Report

    • zic in reply to zic says:

      This goes hand-in-hand with another knee-jerk phrase we teach kids — ‘please.’

      Now there’s nothing wrong with please and thank you, for the most part. But over the years, I’ve found a gender response to ‘please’ that troubles; something that mother’s of boys have to deal with.

      Take the phrase to a 11 year old boy: “Please take the trash out.” You come back later, and the trash is still there. But a firm, “Take the trash out,” gets the trash taken out. Somehow, the ‘please’ in the first is interpreted to be a request, an, would you, if you don’t mind, instead of a command to get a job done.

      (I also wonder at how that same mother uses the ‘thank you’ on the other end, though. I suspect the ‘Please take the trash out,’ of being less likely to earn a ‘thank you,’ then the command without the please.)Report

      • Kazzy in reply to zic says:

        I agree with this. I do not “ask” the children to do things which they are required to do. This tendency I think is borne out of a touchy-feely approach to teaching, but ignores the very real ramifications of asking a question: the other person’s opportunity to answer.

        I do not say please or thank you when a behavior is expected. I do not ask. It boils my blood when I hear a teacher or parent say, “I asked you to stop running!” Yea, lady, you asked… and they said no! This also has many real implications when dealing across cultures. Lisa Delpit speaks of how the whole asking-when-you’re-really-telling thing is a predominantly white, middle/upper-class phenomenon. So many of these children grow up understanding that when they are “asked” to do something in a certain way, they really are being told. Kids from other cultures might lack this understanding, leading to them responding as discussed and being labeled a behavior issue. I eventually stumbled upon a list of tips for giving effective and ineffective commands* for kids, which I’ve since adopted and adapted.

        I do think “please” and “thank you” are important social customs to learn because of the expectation of them, but think there are many other better ways to teach and model them.

        * I don’t love the use of the word command, because of my own upbringing in a touchy-feeling, middle-class white world that viewed it as a negative. But, often times, that is exactly what you are doing when instructing children. Not always, but often.Report

      • Will H. in reply to zic says:

        I’ve learned to say “Thank you” in situations where it isn’t required.
        I learned this from being around someone else that did it.
        It was often the case that I would get the feeling that I was receiving some manner of credit undeservedly; but there was also the aspect of the willingness of the other to give credit.
        Such application of “Thank you” typically works better in cases where it isn’t really expected.

        But I’m something of a serial thanker.Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to zic says:

        “Take the phrase to a 11 year old boy: ‘Please take the trash out.’ You come back later, and the trash is still there. But a firm, ‘Take the trash out,’ gets the trash taken out.”

        This was a problem when I was growing up. My father often expressed his initial commands in “I think that….” statements, such as in “I think that you should play with those toys in the living room and not in the kitchen” or “I think that it’s time for bed.” I tended to interpret these as “it is my opinion that…” as opposed to “I’m telling you to…” When I didn’t do what he said, he would get very angry and start yelling,which frightened me dearly (to this day, when someone yells at me in the tone he adopted, I get very scared….however, he never hit me).

        It is of course possible that my memory is skewed and perhaps I knew he was telling me to do something rather than simply offering his opinion. But at least as I remember it, I honestly believed he was simply offering his opinion.

        I’m not sure how “gendered” this is, in that I don’t know if it would have been different if I had been a girl, or if it had been my mother who used the “I think that…” statements. (She tended to use commands.) I’m not saying it’s not gendered, only that I don’t quite have a clear idea how it was gendered.Report

        • Reformed Republican in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

          Raising my own son, I try to make sure to phrase requests as requests and commands as commands. If I present something as an option, such as “would you like to do X,” if he says no, I will not force him to do X. If his opinion does not matter, I simply tell him “you are going to do X.” If he needs to clean his room, I tell him “you need to clean your room.” There is no “would you?” or “could you?”

          I had a store manager who used to ask “would you please do Y?” and it irked me, because I knew there was not really an option. I would have preferred a more direct command.Report

  5. This is amazing.

    We’ve been working on ways to teach what it MEANS to be sorry in my house (somewhat in response to a few episodes of unrepentant SINO). This approach is perfect. Thanks!

    It’s interesting how this works in Japan. Children who severely misbehave reflect poorly on their families, and parents – not the children themselves – are expected to apologize. Children learn to empathize by watching others – family members who they love – suffer the consequences of their own actions.

    It reminds me of the time one player on my football team did something stupid (I forget what exactly it was), and the coach made him sit on the fifty yard line and watch as every other member of the team ran for two hours.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      RC advocates what are called natural or logical consequences, meaning that the consequence, or reinforcement mechanism be it positive or negative, should somehow be correlated to the initial action. It isn’t ALWAYS possible, but is a good rule of thumb.

      From there, they advocate three basic approaches:
      1.) Apology of action
      2.) “You broke it, you fix it.”
      3.) Loss of privilege

      Personally, I think #1 is sort of a subset of #2. But here are examples of each, spinning of the same initial action:
      1.) Chris Jr. accidentally spills milk and it soaks Chrissy’s drawing. Chris Jr., at Chrissy’s request, helps her make a new picture.
      2.) Chris Jr. accidentally spills milk all over the kitchen floor. You hand Chris a towel/mop/sponge and he cleans it up (with support/modeling if necessary).
      3.) Chris Jr. is careless with his milk despite reminders of expectations for proper care. It spills. Chris Jr. won’t have milk with his meal until he demonstrates that he can properly care for it.

      These make up the bulk of my responses to misbehavior in my classroom.

      Disclaimer: When I’m with my children, I am being paid to focus solely on them. I then say goodbye and go home. For you, as a parent… you’ve already spent your day do ing another job. You then go home and have to manage your child while also getting dinner on the table and the laundry done and the bills paid. So, take my advice with a grain of a salt and a full acknowledgement that it is easier said than done.Report

  6. ted whalen says:

    I seem to be alone in finding this horrifying. It appears that in your classroom you’ve replaced the golden rule with a normative version of Kaldor-Hicks efficiency. Kids can basically do what ever they want, and feel however they want to about it, so long as (if they get caught) they’re prepared to arrange sufficient compensation to those made worse off by their actions?Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to ted whalen says:

      I think you might be attributing a bit more introspection than 5 y.o.’s are really capable of.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        But I understand the objectionReport

      • I don’t think the introspection of the kids is what’s at issue here, but rather the set of values that’s being taught. Instead of a moral/ethical set that resembles contrition/forgiveness/atonement, we’re looking at something much more economical/legal like mere compensation/restitution. We might once have said that the offender ought to feel badly about what they did, express those feelings (however imperfectly), admit their failing or responsibility for the harm, allow the victim the opportunity to forgive, “make it up to them”, and resolve to do better in the future.

        Here, there’s hardly any moral improvement or opportunity to exercise virtue. Instead of feeling badly or admitting fault, we’re much more passively saying something like “mistakes were made” or “uh oh, somebody’s upset”. The “problem” isn’t a moral failure, it’s Pareto non-optimality. And instead of asking for forgiveness, we’re asking for a set of reasonable demands for restitution. What’s really being taught here? That if you’re willing and able to compensate the victims of your malfeasance, you can do whatever you want.

        My take is that one thing we’re doing when we require kids to express contrition is to make them understand that they ought to also feel contrition. Perhaps, the hope is, that eventually they won’t need to be prompted to say, “Sorry”, not because they’ve internalized the social norm of expressing contrition, but because they’re prompted by actual feelings.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to ted whalen says:


          Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’m not sure we’ve chatted here before, so allow me to add a bit of context: I teach in a pre-kindergarten classroom, with children ages 4 and 5. For this reason, I think very rarely are their misdeeds the result of a “moral failing” because of the developmental stage they inhabit. Most kids generally do what they think is right; they just often have a very different sense of what is “right”, often boiling down to what feels good to them. I think that this approach, combined with other aspects of our social-emotional program, help move them towards a different understanding of right and wrong, however slowly.

          It should also be noted that most transgressions are accidental, for which I don’t think children should be shamed. Accidents and mistakes happen. They are integral to the learning process, so much so that they should be embraced. Even a true moral failing allows for a better learning opportunity about morality than my lecturing to them what is right and wrong.

          As I say below, there are other aspects to this program. If a child is repeatedly committing the same transgression, I inform them that it makes me think one of two things is going on: A) They are deliberately choosing to err or B) They are incapable of doing right in the given scenario, thereby limiting their full, unfettered participation in the activity. If you keep smashing people’s LEGO structures despite their protests, you lose the opportunity to work in LEGOs. But I don’t think demanding an, “I’m sorry,” is somehow more effective than having them atone for their errors. They are expected to atone AND suffer other consequences, if and when those are necessary.

          Most importantly, it helps them to understand how their actions impact others, a foreign concept to 4- and 5-year-olds. Johnny might have smashed the LEGOs because it felt fun to, ignorant to how it made others feel. He might have heard their whines or cries, but might not have directly attached them to his actions or truly understood how he made them feel. By allowing them to articulate via an I-statement (“I felt angry when you broke my ship”), he sees that his sense of fun was predicated on another’s feeling of anger AND is told that this is unacceptable. It is not wrong for him to smash the LEGOs because I said so or because it is against some arbitrary rule; it is wrong for him to smash the LEGOs because he has violated another and that is what makes it against the rule.

          This routine does not happen in isolation. It is part of a much broader curriculum, which I will explore in future essays. I’d love to have your continued participation here and going forward, as those come to fruition.Report

        • James K in reply to ted whalen says:

          It seems to me that a focus on contrition/forgiveness/atonement creates a different problem – that children learn that they can do whatever they want so long as they engage in a meaningless little ritual.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to James K says:

            It’s part of the Cycle of Violence. The abuser quickly evolves a strategy of contrition but soon enough, he’s back to his old ways. Contrition is an essential part of the Cycle of Violence: without it, the abuser can’t abuse again.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to ted whalen says:


      This is but one of many ways in which I teach children my expectations for their interactions. Their are other consequences I might impose. This essay deals specifically with what I feel is an over-reliance of the phrase “I’m sorry” under the guise of teaching accountability when no real accountability is taken.Report

  7. RTod says:

    I largely agree with this post. However, having raised two boys that can press one another’s buttons when they wish, I have come to believe there are times when there is value in apologizing even when you believe you have a “right” not to do so.

    Getting to a place of true regret is good, but failing that I believe life is filled with moments where being willing to say “sorry” even when you’re not keeps civilization humming.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to RTod says:

      I think a willingness to apologize, even if just to keep harmony, can be of value. I just think we put too much emphasis on the word “sorry”. “Sorry” isn’t the only way to apologize, but sometimes it feels that way.Report

  8. Shazbot5 says:

    Cool post, Kazzy. But I’ve a bone to pick.

    I teach the children that when someone is upset (even if they are not necessarily the person who made the person upset), we have a responsibility to make reasonable efforts to address his/her hurt. But in order to do this, we must first understand that hurt. A skinned knee is different than a hurt feeling and should be treated as such. So, if Johnny knocks down Maria, whether purposeful or intentional, it is expected that his first step is to stop what he is doing and check in on her. He asks the question, “How can I help you feel better?” He then is expected to follow up on her request and make sure she is reasonably whole again before returning to whatever it is he was doing. The same is true if the injury in non-physical, though the means required to address the need will be different.”

    How do you teach them to want to make reasonable efforts to address the pain (emotional or physical) that they have caused?

    I agree that there is a problem that we see all the time with kids in that they apologize in a forced and empty way, and the solution to that shouldn’t be more forced, empty apologies.

    But it isn’t clear to me that your policy teaches or conditions kids to change their behavior. You aren’t giving them an incentive to want to feel and act apologetic. If anything, you are sort of punishing wrongful action in a just way by requiring the criminal to pay time and effort to the victim. That might create a self-interested motivation, eventually engrained into habits and conditioning, to behave properly, but it won’t create an incentive to apologize.

    I don’t know. Personally, I think all that business about “how would you feel if somebody did this to you?” matters psychologically, and very slowly gets kids to want to empathize with other kids. There is a Humean account of sympathy and moral sentiment where moral sentiment is a matter of your emotions varying with the emotions of the people that you affect, so if you cause sadness, you become sad. In addition to self-interested rationality, I think we do have that kind of empathy. And I think “sorry” is a word (and is supposed to be a word) that should remind kids that they need to reflect on the internal feelings of the person they have effected andempathize. Once you get a kid to feel empathy a few times with the “how would you feel” then you connect that feeling of empathy to the word “sorry” and try to teach kids that “sorry” is part of showing emotional empathy and they need to say “sorry” and feel empathy.

    The trouble is, IIRC, kids aren’t so good at empathy (biologically even?) until a certain age, and so there is a certain training in empathy that won’t do much good for them.

    I’m a fan of “sorry” as a tool to show empathy.Report

    • Shazbot5 in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      Also, it’s important to note that the word “sorry” has multiple meanings that can be used in different contexts:

      1. I now recognize that I shouldn’t have done that.
      2. I now recognize that you were right and I was wrong.
      3. I feel bad that I made you feel bad
      4. etc.

      I’m not sure kids will learn to say “sorry” in the third sense with your method. I might make kids ask each other (if awkwardly, even) about how they each feel and connect that to the word “sorry.” That is, saying “sorry” should mean showing someone how you really feel about what you have done.Report

      • zic in reply to Shazbot5 says:

        Please don’t forget
        5. I recognize that you feel bad about something, and I care about you and don’t want you to feel bad.

        The ‘I’ there may have had nothing to do with the cause of the bad feeling; If your dog dies and I tell you “I’m sorry,” it does not mean that I’m the cause of your dog’s death; It means I sympathize with your grief.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      How do we make people, children or adults, want to do anything? We figure out what makes them tick.

      The developmental stage that most 4- and 5-year-olds find themselves in is typified by explorations of power. It is why meanness develops in new and discomforting ways. Children want to understand what their power is and demonstrate it. The ability to impact the emotions of another is incredibly empowering. Unfortunately, it is far easier to make someone upset than to make them happy. So, children often explore this power via negative means… slings and arrows like “You can’t come to my birthday party” and “I’m not your friend”.

      This routine, combined with others, gives the children tools and strategies to feel this power in more positive ways. And positive reinforcement, another thing they crave, is also used. Together, this taps into a very natural and powerful drive for the children but harnesses it positively. At the end of our day, we share “Thank You’s”, taking a few moments to acknowledge each other’s efforts. Here, a previously aggrieved child might now thank their transgressor for their efforts. Not only does this help them to move on, but it also allows the following interaction:
      Malcolm: I have a thank you for Charlotte. Charlotte, thank you for getting me an ice pack when I was hurt.
      Charlotte: You’re welcome.
      Mr. K: How did you feel before Charlotte got you the ice pack?
      Malcolm: I was sad and mad.
      Mr. K: How did you feel after?
      Malcolm: Happy.
      Mr. K: Wow, Charlotte, you were able to make Malcolm feel happy again.
      [All children left beaming]

      I plan to talk more on some of this in a future essay, largely how we encourage prosocial behavior. Your criticisms are valid, especially if this method is taken in isolation. But it is all part of a larger social-emotional education program.Report

  9. DRS says:

    I remember what it was like being 5 years old, and I think I can safely say that half of my kindergarten class would have played any teacher who tried this angle like a cheap violin. We would have gone into straight denial (not just a river in Egypt!) and big-eyed injured innocence if any little peer had accused us of anything: “I did not!”

    Then we’d have turned the tables on the accuser: “She’s fibbing! She’s telling a fib!”

    Then we’d have launched an assault on the power structure: “You’re always on her side! YOU HATE ME!”

    And finally we’d have gone for the nuclear option: “WAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!!!!! I WANT MY MOOOOOOOM!”

    All without letting the other side get a word in edgewise. Victory.Report

  10. wooby says:

    Remembering a heroic sized attempt with my second, who’d learned “Sorry!” (in his mind) was supposed to further exempt him from action, I find this piece absolutely guttingly glorious! Thank you.Report

  11. Kazzy, I’m in full agreement with not forcing the word ‘sorry’ out of kids mouths. The same with ‘thank you’. (‘Please’ is a bit different since I’m trying to teach my daughter that when she wants something she has to ask, rather than just make a statement – unless we’re talking about something that she truly needs, then asking is less important. ‘Please’ tends to just come along with asking.)

    However, I’m a little concerned that you have swung too far in the other direction. There is tremendous value in the word ‘sorry’. Our daughter occasionally says sorry to people, and does so because she wants to. We’ve done our best to try to teach or model empathy, and, at times, she seems to get it – not always, but, hey, she’s five. As she grows, she’ll understand that sometimes we need to apologize to people – because we have wronged them or hurt them in some way. It’s not a question of making it up to them, or trying to fix things (though that’s not a bad thing to try to do), it’s about contrition – honest, true contrition. Alongside that, I have to help my daughter learn to forgive – and we don’t forgive because someone has undertaken the appropriate penance. We simply forgive. (If someone is continually hurting us, well, that’s a different story, because there’s no true apology there, but that’s a rabbit hole I don’t want to go down right now).

    Do you ever see instances where children try to make things right, but the person who was hurt just won’t accept the apology? It seems the kids might be set up for the same dynamic as mentioned above – where ‘sorry’ is seen like a magic word, the kids could see making amends as a magic act.

    I quite enjoy your idea that you teach the kids that they need to look after each other’s needs and feelings – even if you haven’t done anything to hurt them. Creating such a spirit of community should serve them well in the years ahead.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:


      I think I did a poor job in my post of emphasizing that I do not eschew “sorry”… I simply find it to often be insufficient. For instance, there are often times where a child will come to be upset about something someone else did. When I call that person over and they start off with, “Well, I said I’m sorry,”… those are the times I really emphasize my method, usually by saying, “Sometimes sorry isn’t enough.” However, there are indeed times that sorry IS enough… many of the children will often ask that the other person say sorry and do no more. In those instances, I ask for nothing else. One of the many goals of this approach is to shift the agency, or at least the lion’s share of it, from the transgressor to the aggrieved. When I model the approach during my many errors in the classroom, I always phrase it as, “I’m sorry, how can I help you feel better?” to show that “sorry” in a part of this approach, not something we seek to abandon.

      I’m not sure what you mean by refusing to accept an apology. Do you mean that the child has indicated what he/she needs, the other child responds in turn, yet the upset child does not let go? In those instances, presuming the transgressor has made reasonable efforts, I’ll say, “Well, Johnny has done his part to help you feel better. Annie, if you are still upset, you might need to think of ways to help yourself right now.” Alternatively, if the hurt is such that it can’t necessarily be satiated by a small act and the aggrieved child wants to remain angry or upset with the other child, I use that as a teaching moment. “Johnny, I realize you’ve apologized to Annie, but she is still feeling angry and does not feel ready to play with you. It seems that part of what she needs to feel better is a break from you. Annie, how long do you think you need?” I’ll then help Annie make a reasonable determination that is not unnecessarily punitive to Johnny. If you mean something else, please offer up an example?Report