This past week I went for my monthly meeting with my sweet reading group, and the question came up about requiring apologies of children who “don’t feel like it.” It came to my attention that all of us at the table had been running into an elevated fear of hypocrisy that is found in some Christian circles. It was pointed out in this conversation that the popular mothering book Give Them Grace contains this exact sort of teaching*. The teaching is this:
If we encourage children to ask for forgiveness when their hearts haven’t been stricken by the rod of the Holy Spirit’s conviction, we are training them to be hypocritical. We are inadvertently teaching them that false professions of sorrow will satisfy God.p. 104
As the human heart is a great mystery, this is really an argument from silence — a speculation. Asking a little hard-hearted toddler to say he’s sorry is requiring him to do something he doesn’t want to do, that’s true. But so is requiring him to tell the truth, or to behave mannerly at table. His “authentic self” is more like a savage than the civilized child of a Christian home. To the extent that I require him to do what is right and good when he doesn’t want to, I suppose some might say I was cultivating a little hypocrite.
There is another option, though, of course. For example, what if he’s not learning hypocrisy at all? What if he’s actually learning virtue? What if he’s learning that it is our moral duty to do right, even when we don’t feel like it? What if he’s learning what reconciliation looks like, how it might be initiated, and building a habit of reconciliation that may serve him well in adulthood?
I speak to this issue as a mother who has been making children apologize in my house daily for the last eleven or so years. I cannot, however, speak as a mother who has interviewed her grown children about the results, so take this with a grain of salt.
Once our children were old enough to apologize (they could talk, for example), we expected them to do so. This includes the customary apology for accidents — if I run into you and cause you to drop something, if I accidentally step on your toe, if I drop my water bottle and it splashed your shirt, I say I’m sorry. This is good manners, and so I do it, and if you live in my house and know how to talk, I expect you to do it, too.
In addition to accidents, we also train them to apologize when they wrong someone else. Did they steal someone’s car because they had to have it Right Now? An apology is part of the process of dealing with that transgression. Did they say something mean? They need to apologize. You get the idea.
The person who is offended is expected to forgive. I figure if we’re going to train hypocrites, we might as well go all the way. So I require sulky children to say, “I forgive you.” If they say it too grudgingly, I make them say it again, because I am a Mean Mom.
So here’s the deal. For eleven years, I’ve been training my children in hypocrisy, and something interesting has happened: reconciliation has become part of our family culture. Whereas I used to spend a fair amount of time on apology-and-forgiveness coaching, now it is rare that we have an incident in which I have to intervene.
The dynamics are fascinating to me. My children now remind each other that they should apologize.
There has been more than one occasion this past week where I was doing what I always do, which is to say eavesdropping on my children (eavesdropping is imperative if you are practicing Masterly Inactivity), and forgiveness came up. One particular day, there was a spat between two of the four parties in the room. As the situation escalated, it became apparent that the child who was in the wrong didn’t intend to apologize. As I was pondering my own intervention, the two uninvolved parties began to whisper and watch what was happening. Together, they went and confronted the Child Who Was Wrong and reminded her that the right thing to do was to apologize. Said Child Who Was Wrong became so red in the face that she almost exploded. Just when I thought I was going to need to get involved, she deflated, admitted they were right, turned to the offended party, and said she was sorry.
She was forgiven, and play resumed without further incident.
Training Hypocrisy? I Disagree!
Next time we’ll talk about this in greater detail, but for now I will just say that so far my experience tells me that training small children to apologize is more like training them in manners. They are learning how to deal with their wrongs. We are a reconciling people, reconciliation is our ministry, and yet many Christians spend lots of time nursing their personal injuries. We are all born with the tendency to hold on to grudges, or be too prideful to apologize. We are sinners, after all. Teaching toddlers and preschoolers to apologize provides them with good habits that defend them against these natural tendencies.
I’m not saying that I would walk up to a teen (if I had one) and tell him to apologize, Or Else. But I personally am entirely comfortable with training the habit of apologizing and forgiving from the very beginning of the parenting journey.
*Please don’t consider this a dismissal of the entire book. I like the book.
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