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Teaching Kids About Giving and Receiving Apologies

Lesson Learned: All Apologies

By Mir Kamin

Years ago, Chris Jordan wrote what is perhaps one of my favorite posts here at Alpha Mom. It’s called Seven Rules On How To Apologize and I wish we could make it required reading for the human race. Apologizing is hard for everyone, and near-impossible for some. I don’t know whether admitting wrong-doing is just too uncomfortable for people, or compassion is lacking, or what, but the apology often feels like a lost art, to me.

Alpha Mom Lesson LearnedRecently we had a situation where a teacher behaved in an inappropriate manner towards one of my teenagers, and I am typing this very slowly because when I say, “in an inappropriate manner” what I really mean is “in a harsh, demeaning, and soul-shredding way in front of a room filled with other students,” and we are still dealing with the fallout. No kid wants to be the target of a teacher’s rage, of course. For a sensitive, struggling kid to be dressed down by a beloved teacher 1) for something that, as it turned out, wasn’t even true and 2) in front of others was… well, I got to deal with the sadness and bewilderment in the aftermath, and it wasn’t pretty. Color my kid crushed.

Color this Mama Bear furious.

There’s a delicate dance to be done, here. My kids are in high school. My helicopter only lands on the lawn there in case of emergency, y’know? I felt like this was an emergency. From where I was sitting, not only had a huge injustice been served to my child, it had come at the worst possible time and with a cascade of terrible results—said child not only felt returning to that particular class was impossible, but of course the teacher involved is also the advisor for several other activities which my kid was now willing to give up, rather than have to deal with this teacher ever again. None of these options were practical, of course. And yes, in a perfect world my teenager could self-advocate and work towards a resolution, but in this case it was all too overwhelming, so I did step in… first with email, assuming that the teacher had something else entirely going on and this incident was a “collateral damage” sort of situation, giving the teacher ample opportunity to apologize and backtrack and gracefully recover. My email was initially ignored, then the response came basically assuring me that my child deserved exactly what had happened. Which… yeah, no. No child—no human being—deserved what had happened here, and the information on which this supposed “deserved” incident was predicated was still incorrect. So I escalated up a level, which led to a meeting at school where I was assured the matter would be addressed. [Small factoid that may or may not be relevant: As part of this particular cluster-you-know-what of events, something had happened which is in fact a prosecutable offense, if I should choose to lodge a complaint with the school. Regardless of any he-said/she-said, all involved school staff knew that if this was not resolved, I could make things very difficult for the teacher.]

My kid was called in for an apology, only it violated just about everything on Chris’ excellent list. It was a model of the non-apology. “I am sorry you felt sad,” was repeated several times. “Not that many people heard us,” was, I believe, another part of it. “I was frustrated because…” and so on. I felt my blood pressure rising as it was recounted for me, later. My teen, though, wow, it’s awfully nice to raise people who turn out to be more highly-evolved than yourself, let me tell you. “[Teacher] tried,” my child said, with a shrug. “[He/she] probably got in trouble, so it probably won’t happen again. I can go back to class now, I guess.” But there was a bond and a trust there, before, and it’s been broken. I’m glad my kid is so willing to move on even without the apology that should’ve happened. I choked back my own fury and nodded, congratulating my kiddo on such a pragmatic viewpoint, and trying to convince myself that the slumped shoulders and sadness in my kid’s eyes weren’t really there.

Later that night, one of my teens got upset about something, and while storming around about that, picked a fight with the other one. In very short order everyone was crying and yelling and it was just as delightful as it sounds, I assure you. Finally I snapped at one of them while tending to the other, and yeah, I snapped at the same kid who’d just been through this ordeal at school. Having gotten the other kid calm and situated, I returned to the first kid, who was trying not to cry while saying, “But it’s not fair because I didn’t do anything and you got mad at me!”

It is with shame I must admit that I justified my actions. Even after everything the last few days had wrought, I was That Person. “You did—” and “Why didn’t you—” and the like popped out of my mouth, and I watched as my child got smaller and smaller in response to my words.

I stopped. I tried to catch my breath, which was hard, because my chest hurt.

“Forget everything I just said,” I said, finally. “Listen to me very carefully. I am going to demonstrate what should’ve happened for you at school, and what I should’ve said in the first place. Are you listening?” I took a deep breath and tried to ignore the tear that spilled down my cheek. “Sweetheart, I am so sorry. I behaved badly. I said something I shouldn’t have, and it doesn’t matter why, it only matters that I regret it and I am so, so sorry I hurt you. I hope you can forgive me.”

My teen, my adult-sized child who had been pretending for a few hours that everything was fine, nodded and burst into tears. Finally a choked, “That’s what [Teacher] should’ve said,” came out, and we sat on the floor together, arms around each other, and cried. Because sometimes people you love wound you and don’t make it right again. Because life is hard and often unfair and sometimes it just plain hurts.

Later, we talked about how some people don’t know how to apologize, or how sometimes even people who know how find all kinds of reasons why they don’t need to. It doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. We’re all doing the best we can, and sometimes other people’s best doesn’t feel very good. We keep going, and we forgive as often as we can, even when maybe it’s not “deserved,” because forgiveness is a gift for ourselves in an attempt to let go of what hurts. Did it all sink in? I have no idea; heck, I’m still working on this, myself.

My plea to the world today: Please learn how to apologize properly. It’s far too easy to break someone with your words; the least you can do is try to fix it when it happens. Better still, be gentle with everyone, and then you won’t have to.

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Fabs

    March 25, 2015 at 8:08 pm

    Breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes, reading this. I hope it will eventually make her a better, stronger person.

  • […] all apologies over at Alpha Mom, because I can’t be mad about other people struggling with it when I am, too, I guess. […]

  • Jean

    March 26, 2015 at 9:05 am

    I really want to punch this teacher for you….they have no idea how much influence they hold over our delicate children – especially ones with “issues”. I love love love that you demonstrated how to apologize. Perfection in parenting – right there.

    • Mir Kamin

      March 26, 2015 at 9:16 am

      You are very kind but I’d rather call it “trying hard” than perfection, because mistakes were made, more will be made, and I’m just working on my average. 😉

  • carrie on

    March 26, 2015 at 9:21 am

    I wish more teachers learned how to apologize appropriately. I have needed to apologuze to my students probably three or four times (because I knew I was wrong and needed to, not because I was forced to) and I can still remember the look of shock on each of their faces. They couldn’t believe they were actually getting an apology from an adult teacher, and it made me so sad that so many in the profession think being a teacher/adult means they don’t have to apologize to students. I apologize to my 6-year-old, too, when I’m in the wrong. Thankfully, it’s not all that often, but I like to think I’m setting a good example for her to follow.

    Props to you, Mir, for not going nuclear on this one. My sweet six-year old is as sensitive as they come, and I’m hour situation I would have not handled things near as nicely as you. And make sure your teen knows that he/she is by far the better person in this case and that we are so proud of his/her maturity.

  • Brenda

    March 26, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Oh, goodness, getting teary-eyed over here. I think this strikes a chord with anyone who’s been wronged and the wrong-doing person never apologized or even acknowledged the wrong. Sometimes I don’t know what’s worse, a non-apology apology or no attempt to apologize at all. How great that you were able to give your child a little restoration by teaching through example even though it was hard and kind of awful. I know there’s something so healing about the people you love apologizing when they’ve hurt you. We all want our pain to be acknowledged and validated.

  • Billie

    March 26, 2015 at 9:34 am



    could so easily put myself in your shoes. This: “I was That Person. “You did—” and “Why didn’t you—” and the like popped out of my mouth, and I watched as my child got smaller and smaller in response to my words.” hit a chord with me. I could not say how often I find myself in this position with my son. I hope that next time I can take a page from your book and attempt a real apology. Pat yourself on the back for not only changing direction in the middle of an emotional situation to make it right, but to share it with such eloquence so the rest of us floundering parents can have another tool in our daily struggles with our teens. Thank you!

  • My Kids' Mom

    March 26, 2015 at 10:22 am

    I think about apologies a lot, working in a preschool. I hate it when an angry, (and not sorry) child is forced to say “I’m sorry,” because it diminishes the words. Maybe they can say it later. But to teachers who insist, I suggest that they require a full two sentences. “I am sorry that I did…. I will do …. to make it right.” They can say what they will give up as a consequence, or what they will offer to help the victim.

    Our language mixes up the “I’m sorry you tripped while I was across the street” with “I’m sorry you tripped when I put my foot in front of you on purpose.” It makes kids unwilling to show empathy because they confuse it with admitting guilt. Maybe “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” should have different meanings.

  • Kim too

    March 26, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    What a horrible situation,for everybody.  I m so, so sorry that you are having to deal with it.

    It takes a great deal of self-awareness and suck-it-uppitude* to admit one’s mistakes and failings, and it’s not a skill that our society values highly.  But oh Mir, I would have such a hard time keeping my mouth shut in that room.  I think I would have been the one saying, nope, try again, especially in light of a prosecutable offense (!!!!WTH?!!!), even if that did nothing to resolve the situation. And to have to continue dealing with this person? I am having palpitations just thinking about it. Oh, Mir. So stinking hard.
    Perhaps someone could anonymously send Teacher the link above?

    • Mir Kamin

      March 26, 2015 at 12:43 pm

      You know, most of my kids’ teachers have no idea what I do for a living, and I don’t think any of them read me. I try very hard not to do the “airing of grievances” thing simple for bitterness’ sake. My stance was, and remains, that this teacher is probably going through some of their own crap, and my kid got caught in the crossfire, and that stinks, but I am following the lead/wishes of my kid in terms of letting it drop and hoping for the best.

      I spent some time being really angry, and now mostly I am just hoping this teacher is okay. And of course I’m left dealing with the fallout for our family, too, but that (unfortunately) is life.

  • suburbancorrespondent

    March 26, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    So well written! I did a minor (very minor) version of this a few weeks ago, hating the words coming out of my mouth even as I said them; when I went back to that child later and apologized (the right way) and felt how hard she was hugging me, I hated myself even more.  But none of us are perfect and it is good for our kids to see how we go about fixing things when we mess  up, I guess. 

    But it hurts all around.

  • RuthWells

    March 26, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    You are doing it SO right. Which is why it’s so hard. xo

  • Lisa R

    March 26, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    My dad has always said he had a quick temper. But you know what I remember best from growing up about that? He always came to say he was sorry for yelling/whatever.

    I hate it when I do similar things to my little girl (2 years old), but the memory of my dad helps me forgive myself too. I trust that if I can do what you did (make it right in the end) that’s what will stick more than the times and ways I screwed up. Hope your kid is able to handle being around this teacher since it has to happen!

  • Bethany

    March 26, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    I can’t imagine going through the situation with the awful teacher. How awful for your child!

    I’d like to put in a plug for the book “When Sorry Isn’t Enough” by Gary Chapman (author of The Five Love Languages). He spoke at a marriage conference at my church this winter, and what he had to say was amazing. First, he said that we learn to apologize from our parents (kind of scary, right?). He also said that just as people have love languages, they also have apology languages. I’d recommend this book to any parent who wants their child to know how to apologize sincerely (and any human being, basically).

  • ML

    March 26, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    Modeling an appropriate apology is something they will remember forever. In high school, one of my religion teachers lost it at our class (and one kid in particular) and then came in bearing donuts the next day and apologized. He said he was mad about something else and overreacted. Our unintended lesson about human frailty and reconciliation comes to mind frequently even 20 years later. 

    • Celeste

      March 27, 2015 at 11:08 am

      This. So often when we hurt people with words, it’s because we’re mad about something else and we overreact. It’s just part of being human, but being able to recognize and admit to it is huge.

      I think many people fear those “gotcha” moments where they admit they were wrong and then the people around hang them out to dry. It takes some trust to make an honest apology.

  • Melissa

    March 27, 2015 at 1:15 am

    I still remember how I felt when my Dad did almost the same thing to me in High School. It was a friend falling-out followed by him losing his temper, but the apology was what mattered. It was the first time (as a semi-adult) that an Adult Person apologized to me, and it meant THE WORLD. I can almost promise your kid won’t remember what happened to make you upset, but she will remember you treating her with respect and care. Bravo.

  • Alison

    March 27, 2015 at 4:08 am

    I’m very sorry that this happened, and totally agree that we all need a reminder of how to apologise gracefully and without a hidden agenda. I have been saddened in the past by how kids quickly come to realise that it is extremely unlikely that teachers will apologise for inappropriate remarks or temper outbursts. My daughter commented very recently on how she is expected to provide elaborate apologies for transgressions, but is just expected to shrug and forget things that are said or done to her. A few months ago a teacher said to her that she “should be doing better here, you’re not a retard.” The dreaded R word, never used in this house, with two out of three kids experiencing learning disabilities. She was very distressed by this, but the teacher refused to apologise, even when I intervened.

    • Mir Kamin

      March 27, 2015 at 6:54 am

      That is horrifying. I am so sorry your family experienced that (and that a teacher in this day and age thinks name-calling at all, and that word in particular, is okay).

  • Karen.

    March 28, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    Two strong, memorable posts — this one and Chris’s. Off topic, Mir, do you know if Chris is writing somewhere currently? 

    • Mir Kamin

      March 28, 2015 at 3:22 pm

      Not to my knowledge, Karen (which is a shame).

      • Midj

        March 30, 2015 at 3:35 pm

        I miss Chris, too. 

        Also, I hope to follow your (and Chris’) advice on the apology front. I most often lose it with my siblings, on the phone. Which is why I mostly communicate with them (all out of town) by email or text, where editing can occur pre-send, when things are testy. Now that we’re all heading toward the north side of 50, it’s getting easier to find ways to bolster, instead of tear down, but old habits die hard.

        I’m so sorry to hear of your child going through this at school. I do consider it an emergency and I’m glad you filed a flight plan and landed your helicopter right smack dab in the middle of it!

        You’re the one who brings treats and encourages cooperation when working with the school. You are also entitled to Stand Up For Your Child. Kudos!

  • The Other Leanne

    April 2, 2015 at 12:23 am

    Three things:
    1) My boss yelled at me once at a meeting with co-workers, clients, and Honored Guests. At the insistence of the Board, he “apologized” by saying he was just tired and it was kind of my fault anyway. So awful, and such a bad apology. 10 years later I still feel the wound.
    2) The best and hardest thing we can try to learn is to forgive in the ABSENCE of apology. So many people will do the wrong thing and fail to apologize, but we can still forgive them. I haven’t mastered this and fully expect to have to come back in another life to work on it.
    3) Learning to make a heartfelt apology is morally essential, and we can practice it and demonstrate it so that others can learn to do it too. It is grace itself to learn to both apologize and forgive.

  • JMH

    April 10, 2015 at 11:28 am

    Parents should also “own up” and apologize to teachers when they scream/yell at a teacher…especially when they have only heard their child’s side of the story. At my kids’s school, an angry dad came into the school early (like 6:30 am) and waited in a dark classroom to ambush a teacher. Due to that situation, the security measures have changed (a lot) and our formally warm, friendly school now feels like a prison when you enter it. Also, that parent was never asked to apologize to the teacher.