Is “I’m sorry” enough?

I’m one of those people who over-apologizes. You know what I’m talking about – the person who says “I’m sorry” when someone else knocks her over. I am trying to make sure that my kids don’t grow up to be adults who take more responsibility than is their share, apology-wise, but finding a balance, finding that sweet spot that’s just the right amount of verbal remorse is a difficult task as a parent.

I have one child who is convinced, for example, that if something happens inadvertently as a result of her actions, she is not responsible for making amends. “It was an accident,” she’ll exclaim as she steadfastly refuses to pick up the fallen object or apologize for an unintentional injury to someone else. Somewhere along the line, she decided that one is only responsible for being sorry about an act if it’s something she planned out and meant to do.

Her other approach, when confronted about something she has done to hurt another, is to fall into meltdown screaming that she’s sorry and that she can’t do anything right and that I must hate her for being so stupid.

Um, what? I have to say, given my options, I think I’d rather the total ambivalence over the screaming, but I’d be sitting down on the job of parenting her if I didn’t try to help her navigate the middle space.

So what makes an apology something worth both saying and hearing? Are the words, “I’m sorry” enough? Does it need to mean something? And how can we tell if the person is sincere? All challenging questions, and I’m not sure I have answers that are right for everyone, but here’s what tends to work for me:

If an event occurs in which some kind of harm is done and the person who has inflicted the harm shows through tone and body language that her or his unprompted apology is sincere, I am likely to accept it at face value.

If this is a repeat occurrence that has been previously discussed and continues to happen, followed by the same pat “I’m sorry” response, I’m less inclined to let it go. An apology is a statement that indicates the person is acknowledging she/he has done something wrong, and is also a commitment to ensuring that she/he doesn’t do it again. An apology loses meaning when the actions associated with it don’t match the words.

The language of apology can also be tricky sometimes. Look at the difference between the following statements:

“I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”

“I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt.”

The first acknowledges the active participation of the person who has done harm, and places that person directly into the centre of the conflict. In the second example, though, the person saying the words isn’t part of the action at all. It’s like her/his position in the moment of conflict is incidental, and that the hurt has happened only TO the injured party, and not BY the person making the apology. There is also the conditional “if,” which further removes the individual from responsibility for her/his words or actions. “I am sorry if you were offended by my words” is not the same thing as “I am sorry I offended you,” because the responsibility for having been offended rests on the person who feels offense rather than on the person who has said offensive things.

Is this all semantics? No more than any other conversation where words and emotional response intersect, I don’t think. If the intention of an apology is to amend a situation with a negative outcome, the words chosen to express that are important. I think I have a lot of work ahead of me in explaining the importance of sincerity in apologizing with my school-aged child, but it’s worth it if she can effectively identify when she has hurt someone and understand her responsibility to try to make the situation better for both parties. It will also be wonderful if I can help her avoid taking too much responsibility for things outside of her control. I don’t mind if she takes after her mama in some ways, but she can definitely skip being an over-apologizer, with my blessing.