In the world of words, there are some that are simply more “nutritionally dense” than others. Take, for example, the word “sorry;” it’s amazing how this one little word can convey such a wealth of feelings. In the case of an adult, those feelings usually include regret, chagrin, dismay and sometimes even shame–a lot for just one word to cart around. Put that same word in the mouth of a child, however, and the meanings expand exponentially.

“Sorry (that you’re such an uptight idiot that you get upset over a little thing like a snowball in the face. There weren’t that many rocks in it, and besides: why do you even live someplace where it snows if you can’t put up with little things like this?)”

“Sorry (that you yelled so loud that I got caught holding you down and punching you in the kidneys, but just you wait until Mom leaves, then you’ll really know what ‘sorry’ means).”

Of all the words we have to teach our children, “sorry” is definitely one of the hardest to define (it’s right up there with “compassionate conservative”). After all, genuine contrition is something that cannot be forced–you cannot command someone to feel actual regret any more than you can command someone to feel hunger, or cold. So, when we teach our children how to apologize, basically we’re teaching them how to put on a believable show until they get old enough to actually feel the emotion. In other words, we’re teaching them how to lie.

Not that this is a bad thing: ninety percent of all social skill is really just the judicious application of timely lies. We say, “No, thank you, I’m full,” when we really mean “There is no way I am taking a single bite of that rutabaga casserole; I don’t care if it is your Great Aunt Edna’s secret recipe;” we say, “I’d love to come to your cousin’s life insurance seminar, but I’m busy tonight,” when we mean, “I’d rather stay home and rinse out my comb;” and we always, always say, “No, of course those pants don’t make you look fat,” when what we mean to say is, “It’s not the pants that make you look fat–it’s your fat ass that does it.”

When it comes right down to it, we lie (including insincere apologies) to be kind. (As Robert Brault once said: “Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.”) It is, therefore, this presumption of implied kindness that makes it is such a doubly whammy when our children apologize so very badly: not only have they offended someone with their actions, but also with their transparently insincere contrition.

In fact, children are so very bad at apologizing that the only group I have ever seen who are worse at it are national leaders. No wonder the world is in a constant state of war. The toe-digging-in-the-dirt, arms crossed, muttering way some leaders approach the whole issue of guilt makes even a childish apology seem sincere–after all, not even a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar would have the audacity to come up with, “that depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

Some people, like child behaviourist Rosalind Wiseman, suggest that when our children apologize badly we do it for them: we say, “On behalf of my family, I’d like to apologize for that icy snowball to the face; I sure hope that wasn’t a permanent tooth.” And although I usually roll my eyes at suggestions from “child behaviourists,” this one actually makes sense to me, perhaps because of the world-leader analogy. After all, come November we’re certainly going to be apologizing to the rest of the world for the last eight years.

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