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Learning To Say I'm Sorry

When Benja was very young, before he could even really talk, we began teaching him to say “I’m sorry”. He has always been such a sweet boy, but like every other kid in the universe, with toys he’d get territorial and attempt to maim or decapitate anyone who dared to touch one of his 532 Lego blocks. First rule of toddlerhood is: One must petition the King or Queen before touching or even eyeing his or her toy. Ownership is determined by proximity and whoever’s slobber glistens more freshly on toy. Petitions are always denied. However, frequently denial is overturned by astute Royal Parent, or by appealing to Parent in the form of wail or scream. Failure to follow these guidelines will result in a fit of Royal proportions. Screaming, biting, kicking, bawling, pinching, or body-slamming will undoubtedly occur.

There were dozens of times I would take Benja into my arms and firmly “impress” upon him that such non-sharing behavior was unacceptable. There were dozens of other times when I just barked orders from across the room. From very early on we were telling him that sharing was part of having friends and we used the word “share” over and over. He didn’t know the word. He didn’t even grasp the concept---but we taught it tirelessly.

Since the concept of sharing doesn’t even click in a child’s mind until they are about 3 years old, we spent a lot of time just hearing ourselves talk. So it seemed. And we spent a lot of time having him repeat “I’m sorry” after he’d reduce an unsuspecting playmate to tears. (Note: unsuspecting playmate excludes Avee, she is very suspecting and a little on the antagonizing side). Being sorry was another concept he didn’t understand. Saying “I’m sorry” could have been pointless at 1 year old. He most likely wasn’t sorry, and definitely didn’t understand what it meant. But as parents, we are in the practice of encouraging good habits and teaching appropriate behavior, long before it is comprehendible. Even today, well into his adult years, and with a perfect ability to share, my husband still finds it useful to say “I’m sorry”, even when he’s not sure why. :)

We also taught the principle of saying, “I’m sorry” by doing it ourselves. I am the mom, and I usually know what’s best, but I make mistakes. A lot. And some of them on my children. When I know I have made a mistake, I apologize. Even if it’s to a 20 month old child who may or may not understand what I’m saying.

A young college student who was staying with us for about a month during a transitioning time in her life, scoffed at me for apologizing to my 2 and a half year old. “Why are you apologizing to him---you’re the mom!” I was a little surprised by this. It had never occurred to me to not apologize to him because I’m the mom. I apologized because I was wrong and I quite possibly hurt his feelings and spirit. Even if he didn’t understand my offense or my apology fully, he felt it, and it was important to me to establish a pattern of saying sorry to him when I’m wrong. I certainly don’t ever want him thinking I purposely hurt him, and that I don’t feel bad if and when I do.

As Benja got older, he started to see the common sense in sharing. He realized that someone else playing with his toy didn’t mean he was never going to see it again. He’d even exclaim, “Look she didn’t take my truck with her!” A pleasant surprise for us all.

Recently Benja has become quite the apologizer. The other day I was so frustrated by his actions, I didn’t readily appreciate his cute apology. I had just changed Avee for bed. She had gotten patches of sticky rice all over her clothes and on parts of her arms and legs. It wasn't even five minutes after changing her, I found Benja rubbing rice all over her by the handfuls. It was mashed into her hair (albeit thin and scarce, her hair can cling to rice like it’s follicles depend on it), covering her entire body, front and back. I was pretty annoyed. I have much better things to do than wrestle with rice grains and bathe and change my 16 month old all night. I scolded Benja. He knows better. Only a couple of words into my scolding he interrupted, “I’m sorry! I won’t evoh do it again! I won’t evoh put rice all over Avee and the table and the floor and off my plate again. Evoh.” Because I wasn’t in the mood to be charmed by his adorable self, I growled, “A lot of good that does me now,” and went about my business of de-rousing Avee.

In the following days, those apologies came frequently. “I’m sorry I didn’t put my lid back on my water and it spilled” “I’m sorry I don’t want to watch Barney, it’s not good” “I’m sorry I put my shoes on the wrong feet, can you help me?” He would apologize appropriately at times and then frequently for things at other times where no apology was needed. It is endearing to me, and at the same time, fascinating to watch him try out the words and grow to understand them.

When he knows I’m not happy with something he has done, he apologizes immediately. Sometimes it’s sincere; sometimes it’s just to shut me up. Sometimes he apologizes for silly things, “I’m sorry Avee is poopy” (you and me both, babe) and sometimes they are heartfelt, “Mommy, I’m sorry I pushed Avee, now she’s sad.” Sometimes I think he really means he won’t do something again, and sometimes he’s just saying it because I often punctuate my frustrated rants with “Don’t EVER do that again!” Regardless of what those words mean to my son right now---he knows them. He understands (mostly) the importance of them, and frequently the place for them. I feel a little parenting success with this. And it’s made me think about “I’m sorry” in my own life.

From an early age I started gathering data from my surroundings. I was gathering “material” for how I would conduct my life when I was a grownup and could call the shots. Coming from a virtual potpourri of religious beliefs as a youth, I learned early on how to gather what works for me and try to assimilate it into my life. And now, I use the same process with my husband for how we teach our children. I believe there are core values that are always in place, but there are often different approaches to how one applies and/or teaches these things.

One of the things I struggled with a lot was the principle of repentance. I understood the need for it, just didn’t understand the process, or believe fully in its effectuality.

I don’t even remember my parents teaching me about repentance directly. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I stole a candy bar from the store. My mom caught me with it in the parking lot after we had left. With my mom, stealing a candy bar is bad; actually intending to consume that much sugar is deplorable. She says she realized that I understood I had done something wrong because I was hiding it under my shirt (a foreshadowing of my Twinkie smuggling days). She took me right back into the store and got the manager who harangued me behind the stand of sunglasses. Looking back I realize he was very gentle, very appropriate, and handled it perfectly. At 5 or 6 I couldn’t believe my mom was letting him go at me like this. I remember thinking I’d rather be in jail than get yelled at by this man! For years to come, even when the store changed names, I couldn’t look at that rack of sunglasses up by the cash register without getting a nervous pit in my stomach. To this day, when I go home, I still frisk myself at the checkout---just to be sure.

This experience may have been one of my first in learning about repentance. Returning the candy bar was the restitution. Then I had to confess my crime to the man from whom I had stolen. I wanted desperately for my mom to bail me out and just tell him for me, but I had to do it. And then I had to listen to him give me a piece of his mind.

It works that way now with my son. He does something wrong, I make him return the toy, replace whatever contraband he’s acquired, hug his sister, sit alone for a while and think, etc and then he has to listen to me or his dad lecture him for what most likely feels like an eternity to him. And quite frankly, he’d probably gladly take jail time over one of our lectures. Bars to climb, urinals to play in, bunk beds to jump off of….

I often struggled with repenting of the same thing(s) over and over. With friends, or family, and God---didn’t any of them get sick of hearing the same apology? If I kept saying sorry and kept doing it, wouldn’t that lead to the belief that perhaps I wasn’t really sorry? But I really did always feel sorrow if I ever was asking for forgiveness. I felt like a failure if I would ask forgiveness and then repeat the offense. It would lead me to not want to bother with the apology or supplication at all. Why bother, I’m just gonna mess up again. It’s not going to matter if I say I’m sorry or not. Sometimes I could feel like a real heel because I couldn’t get it right.

Enter motherhood. Enter sweet Benja. He “messes up again” all the time. Sure, his offenses are benign. Like making me clean strawberry ice cream off of every surface of my kitchen after he “sneaks” it and carefully “replaces” it in the “bottom freezer” (refrigerator). Lately, he apologizes almost immediately. Sometimes the apology is the confession. “I’m sorry I hit Avee when you were taking a shower.” Sometimes he says them in the middle of committing the crime, with really no intent to stop. “I’m sorry I’m going outside in my underwear mom, I’m sorry.” Sometimes his lower lip trembles and he feels genuine sorrow. “I’m sorry I wasted the 4th bottle of shampoo you have bought for me in the last month” (Okay, so he didn’t say it like that, but I’m the writer and that was what he meant to say and why the lip was trembling!) Often, they are just words---but he says them.

Guess what? It ALL MATTERS. I am happy he understands the process. I’m happy he knows that apologies are appropriate after undesirable behavior. I’m happy that sometimes he means it and he probably won’t ever do it again. And I’m happy when he just shows he knows he should be sorry, even if he’s not there yet. And guess what else? I love him even more as I see him learn and grow and apply what he learns. I love him even more when his pink, sticky, hands grab at my waist and with his pink little strawberry-smeared mouth say, “but I putted it away!”

I figured out some monumental things as his mother. It isn’t so much what he does or doesn’t do that makes me love him. It’s more about his very existence. I just don’t think it’s possible to go backwards in loving him, it just grows more immeasurable every day.

This is what having children has taught me about God. I know that He is happy with my efforts. He is happy when I learn and grow and apply what I learn. He is happy when I come to Him, a sticky, miserable mess from the decisions I have made, and tell Him how I tried or how I can’t do it alone. I am His child and He loves me. Always. I still don’t think I fully grasp the concept of His unconditional love---but boy, Benja and Avee sure make it easier.

I agree - I never understood Heavenly Father as well as I do now that I'm a mom. And I still don't completely comprehend Him, but I'm a little closer. This is one of the reasons why having a family is so important (world, are you listening?).

"Evoh." LOL how adorable.

Beautiful post. I think "sorry" may be one of those words that the English language isn't quite big enough for. There's sorry because you're gonna get in trouble, sorry because you've hurt someone with your actions, and, my personal favorite, "Sorry you feel that way!" My kids have used them all. I guess in a way, they're all useful, though I'd like them to be aware, above all, of the power their words and actions have on other people.

I can't imagine someone saying "You're the mom, you shouldn't apologize." That's retarded. If you think your child's going to worship you forever, you've got another [teenage] thing coming. If I expect my kids to respect me, I know that I have to be willing to admit my mistakes. Easier said than done, of course!

I think Benja's one of the sweetest little boys I've ever met. Partially due to the fluke of easygoing personality, and largely due to things like you being able to apologize for your own mistakes.

ps. that pig photo is PRICELESS

Thanks for visiting my blog! This post really spoke to me about "training" my little ones more. Most times I'm so focused on my olderkids that my four year old slips through the "training" cracks. I know I need to work on this with her. Thanks for reminding me.

What a great story. I wholeheartedly agree that being a mother helps you understand God's love in a much deeper way. If we can love our own children so much, how much more does our Heavenly Father love us?

I've been lurking on your site for a while now... I love reading each of your new posts. You're hilarious, thoughtful, and a great mom.

This really made me appreciate my kids and their "sorries" and like comments all the more. Thanks for giving me something to reflect on.

Oh and I'm an apologizing Mom too. I think that's the silliest thing that Moms shouldn't apologize. You mean I shouldn't model the behavior I'm trying to teach???

Beautiful post.
I could read Benja and Avee's adventures all day long.
“I’m sorry Avee is poopy”
“I’m sorry I’m going outside in my underwear mom, I’m sorry.”

Just too cute. You're a good mom, but you knew that alreay ;)

Saying "sorry", really meaning it , using it on the correct times, and with the correct attitude are complicated concepts. It all takes pratice.

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