"Say You're Sorry"

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

"Say You're Sorry"

Separating the Identity of the Child from the Behavior :

At Hawkeye We Don’t Make Campers Apologize


Boys Smiling on a CanoeHave you ever been made to say you’re sorry?   That’s not even a reasonable question… we all have.  The more apt question is: How many times have you been made to say you’re sorry? 

Once (ha!)?  

One Hundred Times (hmm)? 

More (yup)?

The reality for most people is that as children, and sometimes even as adults, we are forced to say sorry many times over.  Sometimes we are sorry but not ready to say as much.  Other times we’re not sorry at all.


I remember many many times as a child and young adult being made to apologize to my brother.  I have a younger brother, which makes me an older brother and yes like many (most?...all?) older siblings I was not always kind to my brother.  Anyway, I was often made to apologize and many of those times that forced apology made things worse between us.  I am not saying I wasn’t wrong, I often was, but saying I was sorry didn’t help in the short run nor in the long.


We don’t make kids say they are sorry. 



At Camp Hawkeye our approach to working with kids is different.  We don’t make kids say they are sorry.  Don’t get me wrong, saying you are sorry can be very powerful and many of the situations that we work through with campers include an apology as part of the response.  However the “sorry” is neither part of the rote response by our staff nor is it a requirement for moving forward.  We don’t make kids say they are sorry because largely it doesn’t work.  When you’ve been made to apologize in your life has it worked?  Poof is everything better?  Probably not…


What works is understanding the context of what happened, using empathy and situational understanding to understand what someone did “wrong,” and, committing not to do the same thing again while making a plan of what to do instead.


There are lots of articles out on the web right now related to this topic.  Unfortunately they focus on the wrong thing; they focus on getting a child to say they’re sorry and mean it, or, to say it of their own volition.  In other words replacing the forced apology with a genuine or organic one.  That may make the parent, teacher, or even the other person who was hurt by the words or actions feel better in the moment but it misses the point. 



So what is the point?!

The point is to change the behavior.


Following up after an argument or transgression by a child should first and foremost focus on the behavior itself.  The socially appropriate feelings will come later.   The goal should be making sure the rock throwing, name calling, exclusion, grabbing the toy from the other child, or rude words/tone doesn’t happen again.  Or at least happens less frequently or less flagrantly.

What does that mean to focus on the behavior?  It’s making the behavior the subject of the consequence or conversation rather than intent or the feelings created by or surrounding the behavior.  Saying “Sorry” adds social context to the behavior but does not generally address the action.  It usually indicates one of the following:

o   “I didn’t mean to hurt you physically as the result of what I did”

o   “I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings”

o   “I regret what I did and the outcome(s)”

All this doesn’t matter if the behavior occurs again.    Can we agree on that?  Whether you’re an adult or a child when someone does or says something that is hurtful, even if they apologized, if they do it again it still hurts.  In addition, after an apology when behavior is repeated it can be much harder to be made better the second time.

Saying sorry doesn’t necessarily make something right.  But just like we see many young kids learn about the word “Please” as the key to unlock whatever the heart desires we see the word “Sorry” as somehow excusing or erasing what occurred.  In our own family Jess and I have seen the “Please” example with our older son August.  He’s five and can sometimes be very polite.  Other times he is impulsive, as children his age can be, and blurts things out, demands things, or just asks for things abruptly.  There are times when he is told “no,” in whatever form, that he becomes very calm and polite in presentation and uses the word “Please.”  When he is told “no” again as a response to his polite re-asking of the original question he is appalled.  Usually he retorts “But I said PLEASE!?”

I know where this type of response comes from; I see and hear it all the time.  In our family we fall victim to it occasionally.  There are times when August asks for something calmly and politely with an implied please and still we reframe it for him and have him ask again with the “Please.”   The reality is as parents we give our kids things and experiences that we want them to have whether they say please or not.  We withhold things and experiences that we don’t want to have or do regardless of how politely we’re asked.

That word just isn’t as magic as everyone says it is!

This jaunt into the world of “Please” was a little bit of a detour but the focus on specific language as a magic bullet is apropos. 


What are we really looking for?

What we are really looking for is a change in behavior.  We don’t want to see the negative or socially/situationally inappropriate behavior, again.  In order to foster a change, growth for the camper, we need to do a few things:




1.      Precisely identify the behavior

2.       Separate the behavior from the individual in order that the child can externalize the behavior.  The behavior is something the child did rather than something the child is.

3.       Give precise examples of behavior(s) that we would prefer to see in the future.  Alternative responses.


Our focus at Hawkeye is creating an environment for growth and an essential part of growth is making mistakes. When you encourage kids to take chances, try new experiences, to “put themselves out there,” it is counterproductive to make them apologize each time they transgress. Instead we discuss the underlying assumptions that led to the mistake, understand why/how it is hurtful or not ok, make a plan to do it differently next time, and practice that new skill or approach.


It seems really simple when written this way but in reality it is a paradigm shift in the approach to behavior, interpersonal dynamics, and group expectations.  This approach ties in to the idea that there is no Punishment at Hawkeye.  There are Consequences but no Punishment.  That’s an explanation for another time but suffice it to say that the role that shame plays in the role of “Sorry” & Punishment as compared to the focused work on what someone does, the action, is consistent in both cases.


Theme picker