ShePonders: Apologies

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And that’s what a good apology does—keeps our hearts close.”

Ball_2We practice good apologies in our house. It’s something we’ve been working on for years.

Our standard for a good apology includes three things: a statement of what you did, an apology and your ideas on how to make it right. It’s not an acceptable apology unless all three elements are addressed.

What you did

My children begin each apology with a simple statement of the facts. They say what they did that caused the eruption with their sibling or pushed my hot button. This first movement allows them to own their actions: yes, I did this to you. This is not a time to assign blame to anyone else or add ‘but she did it, too’ or ‘he did it to me first.’ Now’s not the time to justify, toss out excuses or tattling on the other person. (Why do kids use this moment to tattle on their sibling about a totally unrelated thing? Immature deflection, I guess.)

What often happens is that when my daughter says what she did, she leaves things out. So she must start again. Some of this requires her to actually remember her actions – simply stop and remember. Then, without minimizing how this impacted her brother or rushing past the offense, clearly say what you did. I threw your ball over the backyard wall when you weren’t looking. I did it on purpose.

Sometimes the telling reveals a misunderstanding. Like when my son says I spilled the water all over the table making a mess and I clarify that my frustration isn’t related to the spill, but to his refusal to obey my request to put his backpack away first, then come to the table and have a glass of water. Ohhh he says. Then he starts over… I didn’t listen to your directions and put my backpack away first.

It seems that stating the facts of the offense, no matter how small, allow us to rightly recall what we did and own it. Saying it out loud also ensures that we are talking about the actual incident that caused hurt, not mistaking the wrong action with our apology. When the words are spoken, all are in agreement about the action.

Saying sorry

As we stand in agreement over the hurtful incident, we then look into each other’s eyes and say the words. This is so hard to do, but we take a deep breath and say, I’m sorry.

Our tendency is to look away or stare into the ground, as if the floor needs the apology. But then comes the gentle reminder—look up, into your sister’s eyes, let her see you. Eye to eye contact requires connection in that tender moment. We look at the one we hurt; maybe we feel a sting in our soul as we stutter our apology. We look at the one who just insulted us and listen to their heart, even while we’re still hot with hurt.  Sharing this moment matters, small as it might seem.

Something about eye contact in the context of an apology fosters connection when disconnection got a head start. Seeing someone, really taking them in, jolts us back to the realization we’re dealing with a person here. These siblings know that they were side by side in the orphanage before I got there, they share an entire story and, on most days, they’re best friends. They remember what they mean to one another when they hold that space, hold that gaze and say the hard words.

So many times my son will be saying I’m sorry and before he can finish, his sister interrupts it’s okay, I forgive you. It’s as if she can see the apology is genuine, he means the words and is coming back to her in the looking and saying.

There are times when she’s saying a sloppy sorry, adding a sigh for dramatic effect, and my boy just shakes his head. Say it for real he insists. Because we all know when the words aren’t honest, and eye to eye reveals the sincerity of the apology with a speed faster than light.

Make it right

The final step of any good Nikondeha apology is where we consider restitution. How can we right the wrong? We understand words stop the trajectory of disconnection and bring us back to each other, but alone they can’t heal the hurt. So we now turn our thoughts toward repair, what can I do to restore things?

So I bought my daughter a new purple ball. I also bought my son a ball – he chose red. They darted through house out into the yard to play the instant we got home. But the sounds of bouncing rubber balls gave way to yelling before even an hour’s time. She threw his ball over the wall.

So she said it to him. And she said I’m sorry. And while still fuming, he found enough grace to muster an I forgive you. Then she reached for her prized purple ball and handed it to him. You can have my ball now. She didn’t say “make it right”—she embodied it. At the age of eight, she gets what restitution means as part of a true apology.

“Thanks. Wanna come play with me? My son’s seething now disarmed by her immediate restitution, he just wanted to get back to playing with his best friend! And for the next set of weeks they always referred to that purple ball (first hers, then his) as “our ball.”

We’ve learned to incorporate the rhythm of restitution into our daily lives. Making things right isn’t easy, and hardly ever as straightforward as handing over your purple ball. Restitution takes practice. The exercise stretches us to use our imaginations—how can we right this wrong, what might that look like?

My kids now practice by suggesting things. Recently my son refused to go to bed one night, so he considered making it right by going to bed early the next night without any resistance. And when I tucked him in, he said, “I tried to make it right, mama, to keep our hearts close.”

And that’s what a good apology does—keeps our hearts close.

Teaching my children to offer a better kind of apology helps them own their actions, acknowledge another’s hurt, show how we can stay connected and practice restitution under our roof (and beyond). But this family lesson also challenges me to offer better apologies to my husband, my friends and even my children. Because I want to keep my heart close to those I love.

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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