No Apologies . . . for Education’s Sake

Earlier in the year I promised TCS families that I’d talk a little about teaching children to say “I’m sorry.” This article idea came from teachers early in the school year based on conversations with families.

What is it we want when we ask that children express sorrow for a mistake they’ve made? Do we want them to understand that other people feel hurt or bad when we wrong them? Are we asking them for some sort of act of restitution? Are we concerned for social appropriateness? Each of these is a common and reasonable desire on the part of adults who are concerned with teaching young children.
I’ll admit right now that I taught my children to apologize when they were at fault—to me, to a sibling, to a friend. I even modeled it by apologizing to them when I was at fault. It is important in my family for everyone to take responsibility and express concern. Mistakes are not the end of the world, but I wanted my children to take responsibility and know socially acceptable ways of expressing regret—then move on. That’s a family value of mine and many families. I’d feel funny about sending my children out in the world without the experience of honestly verbalizing an apology within the safety of our family and in these first, important relationships.
However, TCS teachers (including me, with my teacher hat on) never ask that children apologize.
What is happening in classrooms instead, if these teachings are an important part of growing up?
I’ll be the first to admit that my concern as a parent in this instance was on teaching socially expected behaviors—I wanted my children to fit comfortably and do the expected thing in their social interactions. It really sounds superficial, when you think about it. And, that is why you will find teachers being much more detailed and specific with children in this educational environment. We have learning goals that go along with the experiences that might, in other settings, be settled by an apology. We want children to be empowered through empathy rather than frozen by guilt, to act on behalf of someone who has been wronged rather than walk away after using a pat phrase, and to show concern for a peer rather than hope that an adult doesn’t know that s/he was involved.
So, children at TCS come to expect to have to check on someone who has been hurt, to be asked to speak out about what they need, feel, or even, don’t want. They expect to have to act to help someone feel better—wet paper towels work for hurts of all kinds. And TCS children do it willingly and cheerfully because they know that the same will happen for them another time. It is part of being a member of the community—part of caring for each other.
Apologies happen, because children have grown up in families such as mine where it is part of what happens. But genuine interactions don’t stop with social graces. Fortunately, my children went to The Children’s School and their education (in this and many areas) was enriched by the thoughtfulness of the teachers and the social interactions they experienced.
To me, the TCS philosophy supports learning goals for children that are deep and well-considered. Whether it is genuinely showing concern for a classmate or feeling a deep excitement about curriculum that is more academic in nature, our focus is on the experience of each individual child within that classroom community. And . . . for that quality of education, no apology is necessary.