One morning a couple of weeks ago, I was the parent who got up to take care of Sasha. I was early, actually, and arrived in her room before she’d started crying out for company, and I found her sitting in her crib, a worried look on her face. She stared at me and said, “I sorry! I sorry!”
It was heartbreaking, not least because she hadn’t done anything. She’d just learned the phrase, and the vague context within which it operates, and was repeating it as much as possible. It’s since become one of her favorite things to say—she’ll even apologize to her toe if she stubs it—and occasionally she even uses it correctly, although you’re likely to get an “I sorry!” if it’s you who bonks her in the head. Sometimes, she apologizes to the point that she’s about to cry—which just makes me apologize over and over again to her. We are a very conscientious family.
But apparently, this is an Issue—or whatever you call it when the Times’s Motherlode blog discusses something that affects you personally. Late last week, Lisa Belkin discussed children and apologies: whether (and how) to force kids to say “I sorry!”
There are a lot of very public apologies being thrown around recently — about oil spills, and long ago massacres and extra marital affairs and ill-advised quotes to Rolling Stone reporters. And as I conclude in my essay, the message to corporations and public figures is pretty clear — say it right or don’t say anything at all.
But what about our message to our children? When we march them over to a playmate whose feelings they have hurt, or whose toy they have taken, or whose shin they have kicked, and tell them “say ‘Sorry’,” are we teaching them to go through the motions, or to mean it?
My worry, I guess, is a little different. I have a child who apologizes all the time, for nothing, and my great fear is that she will use up her store of apologies well before she needs them; that when the day comes when she should be sorry, she won’t be, because she was when she was 18 months old; that her sorrowful ejaculations will have been, as they say, premature.
Of course, the alternative way to look at this is that Sasha is just crazy precocious: She’s intent on mastering the form of the hollow apology at a very early age. No doubt this will allow her to get away with all manner of transgressions in the near future, from spilling oatmeal on the floor to poking classmates’ eyes with a stick to inadequately overseeing the installation and operation of oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico. All she’ll need to do is sit there with her big, sad eyes and squeak, “I sorry! I sorry!” and she’ll be instantly forgiven the destruction of millions of families’ livelihoods (and toddlers’ corneas).
But, just in case her adorable words fail to soothe your pain, please allow me, in grand DadWagon tradition, to apologize preemptively on her behalf: I’m sorry.
Now go fuck yourself.