#055–Why do we teach kids to say “I’m Sorry,” even if they don’t mean it, and that it makes everything okay?

I decided to rebel against this shit years ago, and my growing temper will make me keep it up.

It hit me when I was a student teacher in the high school and had the classroom to myself for the first time. Well, one kid and his buddies decided to make my life a living hell. The next day, he came back to apologize to me.

Well, I’d heard that when he was bragging about his bad behavior, another student teacher chewed him out for being so disrespectful and horrible. So, he was guilted into making the apology. She basically told me (later) that I was right: she made him go and apologize.

He did, quietly, before class started, and said “sorry.”

I couldn’t help it–it just came out, and I realized it was true in that moment. I said it plainly: “No you’re not. You’d do it again in a second and you know it. Come back when you mean it and nobody’s prodding you to make an apology. Til then, let’s be honest about it.”

He kind of just blinked at me and then went to his seat, as the bell was about to ring.

Maybe I was an asshole (and I did feel a bit guilty), and I don’t think I got the “apology, take 2,” but I think we got a little respect for each other after that. If anything, he didn’t pull that stunt on anybody again, substitute, intern, or teacher.

I’ll chalk that up to a win. And it meant more to me than some verbal apology.

Now, a brief look in the internet seems to show some changes to the trend, and I could already see dozens of blog posts about teaching kids how to apologize to each other. (I’m losing count of the posts about adults apologizing to their kids right now. I’ll be reading them for more when I get the chance.)

And yet, the old standard “apology” shines through all too brightly.

This was a minor example in a Freakonomics podcast called “Faking it” And it’s true how we teach children (and were taught ourselves) about apologizing for our behavior.

I see the same thing that Professor Miller was talking about, a little more than halfway through the podcast. This is the transcript portion (and be honest with yourself, how many of you see this type of exchange all the time?):

MILLER: …Consider apology: the words, “I’m sorry.” How many times in your life did you mean them? So they’re said, and how do we teach our kids to be sorry? We say to the one little kid who hits the other little kid, “Say you’re sorry.”  “I’m sorry.”  “Say you’re sorry.”  “I’m sorry.”  “Say it like you mean it.”  And that’s how we teach how to be sorry, and that works, and we sneer it out.  Consider the words, “I love you.”  Those are often always faked, at least when I was in my teenage years.  Those were just purely instrumental words.

–From The Freakonomics Podcast: “Faking It”


I’ts no wonder we get older thinking that an “I’m sorry” is supposed to make everything better, to close the dispute and move on.

But I can’t believe that anymore. That doesn’t teach the kid anything (or the adult for that matter). It just makes people pretend that the happy rainbow is come back and the storm clouds have gone away for a while. Get everybody back in each other’s good graces, or at least look like that’s the case.

I think it’s bullshit. I want to teach kids that when they screw up, an “I’m sorry” doesn’t always solve things.

I haven’t had many opportunities yet, but they’ll be coming more and more. Especially thanks to the rash of cheating on tests and stealing that’s been going on. And if there’s two things that piss me off the most, it’s cheaters and thieves.

Now, if a child means their apology, then it’s another story. However, I believe most people who’ve never been brought to account–especially kids–don’t really know what that feels like to mean it, to feel guilt or shame or something they did wrong.

I can tell when kids really feel that way because the way the “I’m sorry” comes out is sincere, and you can hear the remorse. I WILL acknowledge those “I’m sorry” moments, because they’re true. My own tone and voice become gentler and if the kid’s still upset, I’d like to talk to them, person to person about it and get their feelings so we can understand each other.

Yes, I can already hear the angry replies that it’s clear that I’m not a parent because who the hell would do that to a child? Who would make a child feel bad like that?

Well, somebody’s got to start.

I’ve seen a rash of thieving, back-talking, and disrespect in kids the past few months that’s startling, and one was caught in the act of stealing a stapler (dunno why, I guess for the thrill). But I haven’t heard of any action against the kid, even a call home to tell mom what they were up to.

Not that we would, it’s a freaking stapler, but that’s an awful lot of money down the drain when 5 or 6 go missing the past couple of months, among other things dammit.

I get that we depend on parental good will and such, and we’re at the point where if anybody maligns someone’s “precious baby,” then bye-bye client and/or my paycheck. But it’s ridiculous. I know if anybody stole anything personal of mine, I’d be livid and would not bother containing my anger (and I would want to call somebody on the kid!)

I would probably lose my job if I let it out and told the kid all the things I want to tell the unrepentant (g-rated, I don’t curse in front of kids). But if they stole from me, I would be livid and wouldn’t care. I am sick of the idea that “if you’re not caught, it’s not wrong.”


I want to know why we tell kids to say “I’m sorry,” even if they don’t mean it. Yeah, they may be sorry they got caught doing something stupid, but that’s it. If they would do it again, then they are not sorry, and they’re just expecting that to be the end of it.

Because they’ve been trained to expect that. And we’ve been trained to give that response!

That’s what always made me roll my eyes in the movies or t.v. when you had the so-called “bad kid” who had to always say he was sorry and be sent to his room to think about it. Then, inevitably, he was back to doing stupid shit. Cycle continues.

This “I’m sorry” bullshit isn’t teaching them anything except sweeping it all under the rug. Other than a small facet of basic social decorum, they’re not learning anything from saying “I’m sorry.” People need to learn why someone would expect them to apologize in the first place, what was it they’d done to make it necessary.

We see this “I’m sorry” crap all up and down the line. We see it with our politicians, with criminals, rapists and sexual harassers, cheating spouses, and any combination of the above.

And many times, they don’t seem to get what they’re supposed to be apologizing for. And you can tell!

Seriously, why do we continue to teach children to say “I’m sorry,” even if they don’t mean it, and then that it’s supposed to be accepted?

I have a few benchmarks, just some basic things that I keep in mind and would like youngsters (and adults) to understand when it comes to apologies:

  1. If you would do _________ again in a second, then don’t bother apologizing. You don’t mean it. You’re just apologizing because you got caught.
  2. If you’re apologizing because you got caught doing ________, then ask yourself whether you’d apologize even if you hadn’t gotten caught. If you wouldn’t take the initiative and understand your wrongdoing and try to make amends and tell the truth, then don’t bother apologizing. It’s a lie and it’s stupid and we can see right through it.
  3. If you are being prodded to apologize to someone, then you’re clearly not sorry and don’t bother apologizing. You probably don’t even know what you’re supposed to be apologizing for, and it’s clear you’d never be in front of me doing so of your own volition. Same as #1–you’re apologizing because you got caught. Let’s not waste each other’s time. I’d rather you think about what happened and why someone might want an apology than hear such hollow words.
  4. Regarding theft or lying: have them think about this…would you do the same thing if a cop was standing right next to you watching you? If the answer is “no,” then you’re probably doing something wrong and that’ll need apologizing for sometime soon, whether in front of the wronged party or a judge. Hell, that was the basic indicator for sanity in Britain centuries ago, proof you know the difference between right and wrong. Such a simple idea…hmm…

Any ideas on this issue? I just get more annoyed with false apologies the more I hear them. What do you think? Do you think we can change this?

Floor’s open to you.

5 thoughts on “#055–Why do we teach kids to say “I’m Sorry,” even if they don’t mean it, and that it makes everything okay?

  1. PiedType says:

    For me it’s not the kids, it’s the public figures and the example they are setting. They almost always mean “I’m sorry that I got caught” rather than “I’m sorry and I’ll never do it again.” And our kids notice that. What parents teach is one thing; what kids are exposed to all day every day is something else.

    Liked by 1 person

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