The art of apology. When did apologizing become an art form? When we were toddlers, our mothers ordered us to “apologize to the nice lady,” and we dutifully responded. The quickest way out of a call to our parents during elementary school was just to apologize for whatever it was they thought we did. And as adults, we say “sorry” for just about everything except that which is truly our fault. You have the flu? Sorry. You were going to pick up that tomato just as I reached for it? Sorry.
We seem to get a lot of practice at apologizing throughout the years. Why, then, has it been esteemed as an art form? I would like to propose that it is because so many of us are so very bad at giving an apology of any substance.
I once asked a parent to write a formal apology to the school for an incident in which he was involved. Had he stopped at the first paragraph, the apology would have seemed heartfelt and genuine. He didn’t stop, though. The second paragraph was an explanation of the reason that he wasn’t really guilty of that of which he was accused, and it was finished with an “oh-by-the-way,-I’ve-already-apologized” rebuttal. Some apology.
We’ve all been privy to the apologies issued by celebrities after an improper posting or a slip of the tongue or an inappropriate remark. Talking heads spend the next several days telling us whether the apology was actually an apology or not, making the only thing worse than committing a faux pas having to apologize for said mistake.
As parents and teachers of gifted kids, we know that getting them to admit a mistake, let alone apologize for it, is fun. You want to see a brain kick into overdrive, let your gifted child know he’s done something that requires an apology. Oh, he’ll apologize quickly at first. Sorry. When you suggest that his apology is not genuine, he gives you the threatened Sorry! At this point, he’s sassing you, so that’s need for another apology, to which he gives an exasperated Sorry. If you then proceed to make him feel guilty not only for the bad deed but also for the way in which he is treating you, he will do one of two things: either melt down in tears because you are being so hard on him and he never meant any harm and yada yada yada OR he will take you up on your invitation to debate whether what he did was actually bad or if he might have a really good reason for doing it. Either reaction is designed to unnerve you and make you go away.
As a principal, I require a plan of future action with any apology given. What are you going to do differently next time? I’m not as interested in contrition as I am in a change of direction. I want to know the replacement behavior for the behavior I desire not to witness again. This lets the perpetrator know that I do not plan to deal with this same issue again.
Remorse is good, but often we do not really know we are sorry about an action till much later in the future. We parents and teachers have got to get good at using that aha moment down the road to go back and teach the lesson. Immediately after the transgression, we just need a new plan of action to replace the undesirable action.
Let your child know that the action you dislike must be replaced with a better action and the punishment for not making that change. If you’re paying attention, you’ll get a chance to deliver the lesson soon enough.