Sorry is the Hardest Word


We have three magic words in our house:

Abracadabra, Supercalifragilisticexpealadocious and….NOW.

Just kidding. I tell my children the three ‘magic’ words (or the words with the most power) are please, thank you and sorry. I know, I know, it’s a flawed system. You could argue that the three most powerful words are: ‘I love you’ or ‘Jesus’ plus ‘I’ll pay’. But anyway, this is the way I’m playing it: please, thank you and sorry are the most important words.

We English are well known for our insistence on politeness, so this could be a cultural peculiarity that makes no sense to anyone else. But I think it’s good manners to say thank you if someone gives you a drink, or a meal, or mouth to mouth resuscitation - as soon as you’ve recovered the use of your lungs, of course.

Similarly, if you’ve accidentally elbowed your sister in the groin during a particularly exciting episode of Spongebob Squarepants, you say sorry, don’t you? YOU SAY SORRY, RIGHT NOW….OR ELSE.

Sorry for shouting. Sorry is a very British word. We apologise for everything. If a cyclist mounted the sidewalk and ran over your foot, as a Brit, your first instinct would be to apologise. Well, you put your foot right there, at the end of your leg, right in the way of their wheel.

An excellent lesson on how to teach children to say sorry:

Me: Say sorry to your sister for putting her in the oven.

Daughter: No. It was an accident.

Me: It was not an accident. Say sorry.

Daughter: No, she ate my purple Barbie crayon. That’s why I put her in the oven. It was an accident.



Me: Say it like you mean it…

Daughter: SORRY.

Me: Again.

Daughter: Sorry.

(under her breath) It was an accident, she deserved it.

Me: Oops better take you out of the oven. Are you all right, sweetie? Hmm, you feel a bit hot, wonder if you’re coming down with something. Oh, I must have accidentally leaned on the dial and turned the oven on…

(Disclaimer: this is not a true story)

Admittedly some children apologise quickly when told to, and even add in cuddles to the sorry-saying. I know! And they don’t even have to be poked with sticks to make them do it.

But to be serious for a moment, is an enforced apology worth the breath it is spat out upon? Or is the enforcing just a developmental stage, and later at some point true empathy kicks in? At some point in the future they’ll feel genuinely sorry for ramming a baked potato in the dog’s ear? Or do they just learn the superficial social niceties that pass for genuine repentance?

‘Father, I forgive Bob for eating my purple Barbie crayon,’

Even as an adult I’m guilty of sometimes saying sorry because I know I should be sorry, even though I’m not. Is it better to wait till the heart lines up with the words? Or by repeating the words, do the feelings eventually follow?

Sometimes I want to be sorry even though my inner child is still sticking out her bottom lip and wishing she could stick someone’s head in an oven. So I say sorry. And try to be sorry.

I think this is a good starting place. I liken it to when you first try to forgive someone. You know you should forgive them; you know that, actually, forgiving them is going to make you feel better. And yet as your mouth utters the words in your prayer time, ‘Father, I forgive Bob for eating my purple Barbie crayon,’ your heart is going GRRRRR.

With forgiveness, the clever inner healing people teach us, you don’t have to feel it, you just choose to do it. Then keep on going till you feel it. You may have to pray to God and forgive Bob eight times before you actually feel genuine forgiveness in your heart. You start as an act of will, “ I am determined to forgive Bob” and at some wonderful point the forgiveness becomes real – heart-felt – and then you are done. Until Bob eats your pink Barbie crayon. Come on Bob, seriously, not this again.

Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Nelson Mandela

To forgive someone you don’t have to wait for them to say sorry. It’s nice if they do, but it’s not a requirement (which is just as well, because mostly people don’t say sorry despite all the excellent training by mothers). Think of a hurtful situation like this: it’s as if someone has thrown out a fishing line at you and the hook has got stuck in your skin. They’ve hurt you, yes. It was their fault, yes. But even if they don’t do anything to help, you can still pull that hook out of your skin and disentangle yourself from the situation.

If you allow the fishhook to stay in your skin it will fester and cause you more harm. When you choose to forgive, it pulls the hook out. Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

So, just maybe, teaching my kids to say sorry even when they are patently not at all sorry, isn’t quite as pointless as it seems. Maybe at some point the sorry will become genuine, their words and their feelings will line up.

Either that or I’ll eat all their Barbie crayons and go hide in the oven.