I used to say that I never wanted to apologize. It wasn’t that I felt I was without flaw and that apologies were unwarranted. And it wasn’t because I felt embarrassed or put out by issuing an apology. Rather, it was my roundabout way of saying that I never wanted to cause someone harm or offense. In such situations, I am quick to apologize and take responsibility for my actions—that part is easy. Empathy for the other person’s experience, and the fact that I am the source of their distress, is what makes me uncomfortable, not the apology.
Empathy is an essential personality trait, and it is one that can be cultivated like a skill. It deepens one’s connections to others and makes one’s own emotional experience both richer and more fulfilling. Empathy is placing yourself in someone else’s experience and experiencing their emotions as if they were yours. I think it is such an essential emotional skill, students at Traditional Martial Arts Academy are required to do projects that explore empathy on their way to Black Belt.
Empathy, Sympathy, Pity and Compassion
Empathy is different from sympathy, pity and compassion. Sympathy is recognizing someone else’s discomfort and feeling bad for them. You recognize their emotional experience, but you do not share it. Sympathy can resemble empathy, and can lead to empathy, but it is more distant from the person you are sympathizing with.
Sympathy can lead to empathy with mindful practice. Without mindfulness, it can go the other way into pity. Not only is pity distant like sympathy, but it views the other person with condescension and even contempt. You see the suffering of the other, but you are disconnected for their humanity and experience.
As sympathy can lead to empathy, empathy is the path to compassion. Compassion is the impulse to move from that empathetic place and actively help another’s suffering. If your feelings of empathy are strong enough, it will be hard to sit still in the face of someone else’s discomfort. The leap from empathy to compassion is also a skill that can be developed with mindful practice.
Apologizing Stunted My Compassion
My wife, Julie, also feels that empathy, as well as compassion, is an essential life skill, so even before my daughter was born, we discussed how we could support our child developing it. One of the things we noticed early on in our dialogue came from watching parents and teachers resolving conflict between kids. Almost universally, one child was told they needed to say “I’m sorry” to the other child.
I remember having to do this as a kid. I remember being annoyed that I had to say it. I remember expressing that annoyance with slumped shoulders, no eye contact and a flat tone of voice. I learned nothing about the consequences of my actions other than that I did something wrong enough that an apology was needed.
Eventually I figured out that once the apology was made, the adult left me alone and I could move on. Once I realized this, I started to get much more efficient with my apologies. I also learned that some adults wanted a “sincere” apology, so I learned how to mimic sincerity—whatever it took to get the adult out of my hair.
As you can see (and perhaps recognize from your own childhood), parents and teachers requiring me to apologize taught me nothing about empathy or compassionate action. In fact, because it gave me a formula for disengagement, it taught me just the opposite. The apology was a way to disentangle myself from being in trouble, not a way for me to confront how my actions affected other people.
Julie and I recognized this when watching other parents and teachers telling children to apologize for wrongs committed, especially kids who went on to repeat the behaviors that they were being called on (often looking over their shoulders to make sure adults weren’t watching). So we looked for better options.
Teaching Empathy and Compassion Before Apologies
What we came up with was a very different model. When our daughter could walk and talk, she began to seek out interaction with other kids. And because she had no experience at socializing, she was pretty terrible at it (as is any two to three year old). She would take toys from others, then she would get upset when other kids would take toys from her. There were times she would get physical with other kids (sometimes playfully, sometimes not).
She knew what she wanted and what was fun for her, and that was her only consideration. The typical sociopathic toddler.
When she did something that hurt or offended another child, Julie and I did not tell her to apologize. Instead, we told her to look at the other child’s face. “Does he look happy right now?” “How do you think she feels?” “What did you do that made him feel that way?”
All of these questions engaged her to look at the consequences of her actions to the other child. They encouraged her to empathize (or sympathize at least) with the other child’s emotional experience. This all ties a cause and effect between what she did and the feelings of the people around her.
Empathy and Compassion Are Skills—They Take Time to Learn
Of course, this didn’t work at first. She was two and barely understood her own feelings. She was not even really aware that other people had feelings. But by the time she was three and a half, she was developing a better understanding of how others felt, she was developing a more nuanced understanding of her own feelings and could better comprehend the relationship between her actions and their effects on others.
She would still do things that hurt other children’s feelings or made them angry. Toddlers are often excited by social interaction with peers without a lot of skill and self-awareness to do it well. But beneath her social clumsiness, empathy and compassion were growing.
Doesn’t the Other Kid Need to Hear an Apology?
A final note. What Julie and I are doing with our daughter seems to be helping her develop empathy and compassion. But when she is in a situation where other parents or teachers would expect her to apologize, what about the other child? Doesn’t he or she deserve an apology?
What we have found is that when we are able to get our daughter to explore what the other child is experiencing, the process can be comforting to that other child. We will often ask the other child to tell our daughter what they are feeling or how her actions affected them.
The process seems soothing for them. My theory is that often it is enough to be heard. And receiving a reflexive apology from someone who clearly doesn’t care how you feel does not leave one feeling heard at all.
So…Should Kids Apologize?
So in the end, the question remains, should your child ever say, “I’m sorry”? It is very important that people apologize when they have done wrong by others. But, their apology should be sincerely rooted in empathy and compassionate action, and be a step in changing choices that led to harming others. For Julie and me, we are removing the pat response of an automatic apology and working to teach our daughter empathy and understanding the consequences her actions have on others.
In the end, what is most important is that your conversation with your child and parenting partner regarding apology should begin and end with empathy. Where that conversation takes you is likely to be very unique and personal to your family and your family’s values.