Zionsville Times Sentinel

April 2, 2014

How to make a good apology

Zionsville Times Sentinel

---- — “Don’t ruin a good apology with an excuse.” — Benjamin Franklin

In a world where leaders from politicians to preachers caught in scandal let themselves off the hook with an apology/excuse, teaching children how to rightly apologize can be an uphill battle. Yet, if parents can manage this lesson, they strengthen both their children’s character and the relationships their children create in the future.

Apologies take responsibility for wrong choices and recognize the hurt caused. Period. Sure, there may be context. Sure, there may be mitigating circumstances. Those can be explained later. When included in the apology, the message gets skewed. Whether specifically said or not, the message that is heard becomes, “I know I goofed and it hurt you, but you really shouldn’t be hurt because I had a good reason.” (Or, “I was weak and you should understand.” Or, “Everyone else does it, so I thought it was OK.”) This minimizing of hurt causes more hurt and compromises the hope for reconciliation.

It takes strength and humility to own a bad choice. It takes compassion to own the hurt caused another. When we teach our children to just apologize, we built these traits into their character. People don’t like having to admit fault and take responsibility for injuring others. As we require our children to do so — without excuse or explanation—they learn to look ahead and become strong enough to make only those choices they are willing to own and avoid those they aren’t.

Further, people like being in relationships with strong, humble, compassionate people. As our children learn to take responsibility for their choices and the hurt they cause others from the bad ones, they become people others want to know. Finally, this taking of responsibility creates the kind of person others trust. Trust will be the foundation of every relationship our child creates. As they grow in trustworthiness, they lay the groundwork for healthy, lasting relationships. This trust also opens the door for those longer conversations about context and mitigating circumstances.

A good apology simply and specifically states both the wrong committed and the hurt caused. It goes something like, “I know I (fill in the blank with behavior) which caused you (fill in the hurt). I’m sorry.” Straightforward; simple; unencumbered.

When our daughter comes to us, discouraged because a friend is upset with her choice to forego prearranged plans with one friend to hang with some others, we can guide her into a healthy way to make amends and hopefully keep the friendship. She might frame the apology, “I know I bagged our trip to the ball game for a day out with other friends which caused you to feel unwanted and left out. I’m sorry.” Admitting the wrong and acknowledging the hurt opens the door for her friend to be honest about where things stand now. In that conversation it might be possible for daughter to also share that she went with those friends because it was one’s birthday, and she had simply forgotten the double scheduling. When she tried to call to straighten it out, she couldn’t get through.

Mitigating circumstances which, in their proper timing help clarify the situation, but which put in the apology just begin to sound like an excuse — a diminishing both of true responsibility and true remorse. Helping our child get this right teaches her how to mend the inevitable rifts in friendships and keep them healthy.

Never spoil a good apology with an excuse. Words to live by.

Tess Worrell is the mother of eight and teaches parenting and marriage. Email her at tess@yourfamilymatterstous.com.