Why I'm trying to teach my kids to stop saying sorry

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Sorry. It's a tiny, two-syllable word but it's laden with so much meaning, isn't it?

We all know someone who would rather chew off their own foot than say sorry, and we equally probably know someone who can't help but apologise for everything, even if they had nothing to do with it. 

And then there's a whole other category for those who love the non-apology that always begins, "I'm sorry, but…" 

Sorry, given the right circumstances, can be a powerful word. It can say you recognise that you've hurt someone and you want to make amends. Sorry can say you feel sad for the hardship someone is going through. Sorry can mean you care.

But for my children, sorry has become a non-sequitur. A space-filler. Something to say when nothing would have sufficed. It's practically the new "um". 

This is a genuine transcript of a conversation we had over dinner recently:

Child: Sorry, but Mum could you pass the salt?

Me: Sure, but there's no need to say sorry, just ask.

Child: Okay, sorry. 

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Me: There you go again.

Child: Sorry.

What's the problem? I hear you ask. Isn't it nice that they even say sorry?

And, look, I hear you. My youngest child, who is eight, hates saying sorry. If she's caught out doing anything she shouldn't, she will cry and wail and go to her room before she will say a simple sorry to anyone. It's like putting her through genuine physical torture. 

But for my two elder boys, who are 10 and 16, it's become a meaningless throw-away line and it irks me, because they're diluting the word. By its overuse it has become virtually meaningless. 

A brief online search assures me that my children 'over-apologise' because of a lack of confidence, but that doesn't seem right. My sons are both confident, outgoing kids who are well-spoken and comfortable in most situations. 

Another idea was that I've been modelling the behaviour myself, but that's not the case here either. I'm happy to say sorry if the situation warrants it, but I wouldn't consider it a problem for me.

All I can think is that my younger son learnt the habit from my older son. But where he got it from, I have no idea.

So I've given up trying to figure out where it comes from, and instead try to stop the sorry train before it goes any further. 

I've set a challenge for my sons to not say sorry unless it's justified for an entire week. It's important, I've told them, because when they do say sorry, it should be because they genuinely mean it, and the recipient of the apology should be able feel that.  

They both heartily apologised for having said sorry so much, and then we started the challenge. Three days in, I don't have high hopes we'll make it through the week, but at least the issues is front and centre in their minds. Goal setting is not so much about the destination as it is about embracing the journey and doing the best we can. 

Being able to apologise to one another is an important part of human connection. It's like saying "I love you" or "I'm here for you" – it should never be said flippantly or without meaning. 

Being able to say sorry sincerely is a wonderful thing, and I'm hoping my sons learn that and wield it with care and sensitivity in the future.