OK parents: should kids learn to say, 'I'm sorry?'

halfdecafMarch 14, 2007

Well, the parental input from that recent "spanking" thread was so interesting, I thought I'd throw a new child-rearing issue out:

A friend recently told me she'd heard a speaker on parenting say that while his children were growing up he never made them apologize to others. His rationale was that too often he felt his kids would mutter a perfunctory, "SORRY" only because they knew they had to, not because they actually meant it or felt any kind of remorse for their actions; he felt it was more important that children learn to identify their feelings around their actions rather than simply comply with a behavioral expectation.

Do you agree? Disagree? See both sides? I'd love to hear perspectives...

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I probably wouldn't like his kids. Manners don't come with age, (my exMIL would be a good example) :p they come from learning. Parents should teach their children to respect others feelings, and part of that is saying sorry when you've done something wrong.

Does a child ever mutter a "sorry" because they have to? Sure they do, but a good parent will eventually teach a child why they have to say "sorry" so that eventually when said, it will be with their heart.

And if you don't think perfunctory "sorry" isn't an issue for any age...ask anyone who's married :p

I hope as an older parent (baby at 41) I'm smart enough to avoid those goofy speakers! It's much like one I heard who said saying "no" was a bad thing. For gads sake...if you don't give kids boundries they go nuts! My girlfriend and her husband tried the "don't say no" with their first child...until she was about 11 months :p then reality set in thank God!!!

    Bookmark   March 14, 2007 at 9:47PM
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Oh Good Grief. I wonder if the speaker instead is modeling ''I'm sorry'' behavior to the kids, or thinks perhaps as a parent they don't have to say it themselves? Does that mean the speaker's kids shouldn't ever need to hear ''I'm sorry'' either? You can't have it both ways. I agree completely with igloochic...I probably wouldn't like the speaker or their kids. (I hope no one paid $ to hear that idiot speak.) It's obvious that person doesn't have grown children or any experience as a parent for that matter.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2007 at 10:32PM
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What I do as a parent and a teacher is to try to "set the stage" for the expected apology by asking questions of the offender. "Jason, I know you thought that was really fun, but look at David, did you realize that he got hurt when you crashed into him? Look at him!" That often illicits the desired response. If a child is cocky or stubborn at that point, I might give them a time out (missing the next activity) to think it thru.

If two kids are "hopping mad" at each other, I will try to referee the situation, acknowledge the feelings involved, but at some point say "Now can you say "I'm sorry" to each other?"

I think it is quite lacking to simply ignore the need of an apology because the child doesn't "feel" like it, on the other hand, I respect the process of helping them understand why it is needed.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 1:51AM
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We teach our children to use many words that take time to fully grasp. Please, thank you and sorry are just a few.

By excusing the child from apology, it seems the speaker is condoning what could be aggressive behavior based on impulse. The focus should be on teaching the child forethought and process, which the speaker is seemingly precluding.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 6:44AM
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Kids do a lot of things by rote or against their will simply because the parent or adult makes them. THAT'S HOW THEY LEARN. People are not born knowing how to behave. And expecting a two year old or four year old to get in touch with their feelings is ludicrous. At that age, their feelings are completely selfish, it's all about "ME". One of the main aspects of our job as parents is to teach our children to understand how their actions and words affect others. And saying sorry, whether the kid means it or not, goes to that education.

Would this guy have kids "learn to identify their feelings around their actions rather than simply comply with a behavioral expectation" in every situation? What about when the child wants to cross the street without looking or holding the parent's hand? I bet they could identify their feelings pretty quickly when they got hit by a car! Ok, an extreme example, but kids have to learn about how to get along in the world, and saying sorry, whether they mean it or not, is definitely one aspect of that.

Oh and by the way, I'm a firm believe in parents apologizing and admiting they're wrong when they are. I've done that with my kids since day 1. Just the other day, I falsely accused my son of misplacing a tool. I couldn't find it and finally gave up and I was sure he'd done it because he tends to put stuff in his room and forget about it. Days later I found the tool where I'd left it. I immediately apologized to him and admitted I was wrong to accuse him with no proof. He's 16 and can be defiant at times, so he could have easily taken advantage of the moment to push his agenda and insist I no longer find fault with his actions. Instead he just said, that's ok mom, no one's perfect. A lesson I don't think he could have learned or readily admited at age 16 had he not been raised with "sorry" as part of the way we treat others.

I'd be very interested to know if this guy
1. has kids
2. if so, how old are they
3. and how do these kids behave

One thing I do know, coming up with a ridiculous theory like this probably does get books sold and speaking engagements. Whatever.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 10:12AM
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That is one of the most foolish notions I have heard of in a long time. The speaker the OP talked about is an idiot.

The best way to teach your children to say "I'm sorry" along with Please, Thank you, I'm so sorry for your loss, etc., is to use those phrases yourself.

Nota Bene - phrases like "Thanks for the turn signal, a**hole!!" are picked up just as easily.

Amazing what the little scamps will pick up.

I'm always surprised what passes for informed child psychology these days. One final note, the speaker stated what was important was the child identifying her feelings. . .

Has that EVER been an problem for a child? That is the essense of being a child. Sheesh.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 10:16AM
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LOVE these answers! You gave me some reasons I hadn't thought of, and that just reinforce my initial thoughts about it.

igloochic - you're so right...apology does go a long way in a marriage, perfunctory or not - and if the kids are going to pick up our habits, might that not be a good one?

Claire - I agree: I wonder how his kids would feel if treated this way?

jubileej - I like how you take both the behavioral and the emotional into consideration - I'm sure your students are blessed

paulines - that is a great point you make about this being a way to help kids learn process & forethought. I hadn't put it in those terms before, but it's so true, I think.

lowspark - what a great reminder that we parents are the best models...I appreciate your story, and I'll bet your son appreciates you (defiant as he might be!).

doc - though it's a serious point, your "nota bene" has me laughing. And I like your point that children are probably better than adults at being in touch with their feelings.

My thought had been along the lines that an approach like this is so child/"me" centered that it doesn't take into consideration that there's another person for whom we might be responsible. I see signs of an increasingly narcessisitc generation of kids, and this is just one more of those signs, and the "apology optional" approach seems to only reinforce that the only one who matters is "me" - but does that help my child learn to live in a society with others? Hmmm...

Your comments were so helpful, as I'll probably revisit this idea at some point in the future with my friend. She wasn't sold on the idea either, but I could tell she was seriously considering it (and noticed that just a few moments later didn't make her child apologize for hurting mine). Thanks so much for your great input and insights!

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 11:07AM
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This is just another example of why things have gotten way to "child centered". It's all always about the kid.

He must have raised my DH. He never apologizes for anything. Ever. Drives me crazy. He was also raised to think the sun rose for him. Sort of gen-Me born in the baby boomer generation.

There is a great book called, "Talk to the Hand", about manners and polite discourse. It explains that we expect certain things from other people. When we hold the door we expect the other person to say "thank you". When they don't we feel cheated. The same thing happens when people brush by other people ("pardon me") or accidentally step on someone's foot ("sorry"). Waving "thanks" to someone when they let you cut into traffic. Etc.

There are some things you just DO to keep it all civilized.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 11:08AM
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Anyone remember The Biscuit from Ally McBeal, who would practice smiling in his office to feel happier? Same thing here, good habits create good practice and feeling. We are wired that way. I agree with all the wise ones above!

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 6:54PM
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Hmmm. I dunno. I have never *forced* my daughter to apologize on the theory (which the speaker probably had) that a forced, insincere apology just teaches a child to lie. Yet, my child (now 13) has always apologized nonetheless. She was born pretty empathetic and has high social and emotional intelligence. Unlike the rationale the OP described, I think it is more important for the child to understand the OTHER person's feelings and perspective, not so much his or her own. I have always apologized to my kid when I made a mistake; perhaps that has helped, too.

I think most kids know when another kid's apology is insincere and that the kid really isn't sorry but is looking for the first opportunity to retaliate. JMHO.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 10:36PM
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That's about as brilliant as the line, "Love means never having to say you're sorry."


    Bookmark   March 16, 2007 at 1:58PM
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There are so many things that parents need to instruct their children about that don't come naturally. That's why it's called "Training a child".
As my children got older, I tried to at least patiently wait a moment to see if the right and kind response came out of my child's mouth before I nudged with, "What do you say?" or "You need to tell your sister you're sorry you hurt her" or "What do you say to the nice lady?" I work at a bank now, and do hate it when parents want to jump in with "Say Thank you" or "Say Hello" when the child hasn't even had a moment to react. Parents CAN prod too much. Each one of my 3 children chided me more than once for jumping the gun.

But whether the "I'm sorry" comes from remorse, a full heart, or simply parroting the Mom/Dad, it is necessary. It's necessary to Teach your child the right responses so that they will come naturally later in life.

This is kind of unrelated, but my family has attended religious meetings 3 times a week throughout my children's entire lives. When they got to be a little older, maybe 7 or 8 or even as young teens, I started noticing that they were always having a great time with their friends afterwards, talking, laughing, and walking up and down the aisles. That's good. I want them to WANT to be there. But then I added a level.
On our drive TO our meeting, I reminded them to behave, but I also told each one that he/she needed to go up to at least ONE person that they would not normally talk to, someone older........not necessarily an elderly person, but someone grown up, and say at least one thing to that person. I told them that I would ask them who they talked to on the drive home. (Later, I would add a person........you need to say Hi and visit for a moment with two people after the meeting...)
Well, they were all "I don't know what to say!" "Why do I have to do this?" etc. for a while. But you know what happened? On the drive home, each one would excitedly tell me about talking to Old Mrs. Hurst or Old Mr. Brown. They would tell me how they went up and said "How are you??" and then, Old Mr. Brown would smile and chat with them. They sometimes got Miss Pearl who would give them candy or a hug. They eventually did not have to be expected to chat with older ones. Why?? Because they enjoyed the response so much that they did it on their own.
Over the years, I have received so many compliments on my children for their willingness to talk to all people, to greet warmly, and to offer assistence in little things. None of the three really remember HOW they got to be so popular with everyone, they all three think they are just naturally nice and kind people. But Training a child to do something that is right and kind is never wrong. Hopefully, it will become embedded in them forever.


    Bookmark   March 16, 2007 at 2:27PM
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I have always apologized to my kid when I made a mistake, perhaps that has helped too.

Absolutely - your modeling has been your training, ingraining the appropriate responses so that it feels like 2nd nature to her. If she hadn't picked up on that, though - I bet you would have directly taught her about it.

    Bookmark   March 16, 2007 at 3:11PM
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I have figured out the hard way, though, with my own kids that just because they are doing what they should at a given point in life (or avoiding what they shouldn't) without my direct teaching, doesn't mean they will continue that pattern later on. Better a few rolled eyes at a parent's didactic remarks than for a child to miss the point.

    Bookmark   March 16, 2007 at 3:21PM
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as a grownup, I have MANY times apologized to someone when I didn't feel sorry at ALL.

The lady who backed into me on the subway, and then demanded an apology.
The coworker who I didn't give info to becaues he was such a pain, but I should have.

Some of these people, I didn't owe an apology to, but it made the subway ride easier.

Some of these people, I DID owe an apology to, technically, but I still think they contributed mightily to the problem, or it wasn't as big a problem as they made it out to be.

But in all of them, it was important to the smooth functioning of our world that I apologize in a moderately believable manner.

Lies are important, sometimes. And just because my apology was insincere doesn't mean I was looking for an opportunity to *retaliate*--it just means I don't really feel sorry but know I technically should apologize.

To the hearer, there's value in that as well, I think.

I think learning to SOUND LIKE you mean it, even when you don't, is a skill that kids should learn. They'll never learn that acting ability without practice.

And, later, when we're not in the middle of the problem, I can work with them on why they should FEEL sorry.

My kids have also hurt each other unintentionally often enough that they have first-hand experience in when they want an apology even if the person didn't intentionally or carelessly do something awful, and the person doesn't need to feel lots of remorse. They just need to say sorry, as a way to acknowledge how much the other person was hurt, physically and emotionally.

And part of what you teach them, when you tell they they must apologize whether they want to right now or not, is that YOU THINK THEY ARE WRONG. If you don't make them apologize, how will you tell them that they have crossed the line?

doc is right that kids are totally in touch with THEIR feelings. The point is to teach them to be in touch with OTHER PEOPLE's feelings. And jubilee has a WONDER example of how to do this! love it! That is truly a much better approach than to simply say, "you were, say you're sorry." And I've realized that I use her technique.

But if they don't get it, or they're stubborn and WON'T get it, or they're too mad on their own behalf, I will insist. And I've been known to insist that the OTHER kid they're in the dispute with (even if it's not mine), apologize as well. In the order that I perceive the offenses were. Or the magnitude.

And I will insist that the dispute must end after the apology. (unless I feel like the point hasn't gotten across yet, but usually it has, it just needs time to sink in)

    Bookmark   March 16, 2007 at 3:54PM
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I'm in the minority here.

I teach my children to make amends - which means to try and fix. When they were little and stepped on a friends toe, we asked the friend what we needed to do to help them feel better. Sometimes the friend would say "say your sorry" and so they would. But most of the time, "I'm sorry" wasn't what they wanted, sometimes it was a turn on the swing or a hug or whatever. The rule is you MUST do what's asked (unless it's prohibitted for some reason) This is usually more involved than "I'm sorry". It's especially tough when the act was intentional (toes are the easy ones).

I feel that my boys are now so much more empathetic than had they memorized what was expected. They are 7 & 11 now, and rarely do I have to talk this stuff through anymore. They really got it. (except when torturing each other!)

BTW - I was also trained only say no when it's an immenent danger issue, otherwise it works best to tell your kids what you want them to do as opposed to telling them what not to do. When we give a negative, the child doesn't have anything to replace the act with. Instead of don't bounce the ball in the house, we would say if you want to bounce the ball, go outside. I doubt that anyone talking about avoiding no means let the kids do whatever they want.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2007 at 1:09AM
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I am such a country bumpkin sometimes. I was reading tally sue's post thinking "That's one aggressive Subway Sandwich Shop!" :o) Half way through I figured it out LOL

(I considered looking up where she lived and NEVER eating out in that town!)

    Bookmark   March 17, 2007 at 1:33AM
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kailuamom, I really think you are saying basically the same thing as the majority but in a more definitive way. I took this he felt it was more important that children learn to identify their feelings around their actions rather than simply comply with a behavioral expectation to mean that the speaker did not require his children to make any sort of gesture of apology, whether verbal, physical or whatever. Perhaps that's incorrect but I think that's the way most responders took it, too. If he'd said he felt it was more important that children learn to identify others' feelings, then I don't think it would have been challenged so much.

I love your parenting style, btw. In my first marriage, my husband did some really horrid things, and would later say, "I'm sorry." The behavior didn't change, though, so my motto became, "Don't TELL me you're sorry, SHOW me!" I have been raising my kids this way and feel it is a very important distinction. However, first things first! They need to learn the words and later we work on the empathy part. Then, if you are truly sorry, you must change your actions to suit your words or the apology is meaningless. This stage takes some time to reach.

I do agree with sue, though, that there are times and places when an insincere verbal apology is the better part of valor!

    Bookmark   March 17, 2007 at 12:28PM
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OK Seeking - Thanks for the compliment. I was thinking that it was a symantics thing, which happens sometimes, as a writer or speaker is trying to find their "hook" and differentiate themselves. Trust me, my kids know how to do the quick and easy sorry, they are hoping to get that out quick before mom comes in with her lesson!

Now, youre right about the DH though, that's a whole 'nother bout of training!

As I think about the speaker, it occurs to me how it is so contrary to any parenting book I've read. What I have read, is the first thing to do is focus on the wounded and IGNORE the offending party - completely. This is supposed to de-emphasise any negative attention getting behavior. The way this sounds, they are actually encouraging it -ODD!

    Bookmark   March 17, 2007 at 1:21PM
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Just chiming in again...
I realize that there may be an aspect of the "telephone game" at work: a friend told me what she heard someone else say... But she was pretty adamant that this guy made a point of saying he "never" made his children apologize (at least that's what her ears heard...). It's words like "always" and "never" that tend to perk my ears because it's so rare that any of us can make those kinds of extreme statements. The thought occurred to me, like you mentioned kailuamom, that perhaps this guy was indeed looking for a "hook" with which to differentiate himself. It's unfortunate to me, though, that what at least one of his hearers has now taken aways is the idea that "Hmmmmm, maybe I shouldn't ever make my kids apologize for anything." That concerns me.

I love the dynamic conversation around this - thanks for your continuing input!

    Bookmark   March 17, 2007 at 1:58PM
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I kind of agree with both halfdecaf an kailuamom's perspective:

first, I think that we can't really fault the original speaker because we don't really know what he said. There are some versions of what he said that make perfect sense to me, others that don't, lets give him the benefit of the doubt and not attack a "philosophy" that he, himself, has not explained to us.The original post's vesion of the speaker's words made me think of how annoying rote "sorry's" are *especially* when they've been demanded of a child, given, and then abandoned. I'm thinking of the kid who spills something at your house and never says sorry except that the parent demands they do and then...nothing...they run off and play and the parent cleans up. Or the kid who viciously pushes your kid in the park and says "sorry" when told to but then the parents and kid walk away from you and your sobbing, snot smeared child. I think we would all be in agreement that a coerced sorry is not sufficient and that an educational method that relied *only* on coercion to produce the word but not on coercion or serious practice to change the behavior would be at fault. I'd like to read the speaker's words in the most generous way and figure that he's saying that sorry alone is not enough and that we have to work, long and hard, with kids to make them the kind of people who can realize that they have hurt someone else and take affirmative steps to make the hurt right.

It sounds like kailuamom and I have the same kids, or the same parenting strategy. Neither of my children has any trouble saying they are sorry--and really meaning it. I don't mean "sorry for stepping on your toe" or "sorry for being a jerk" but like this "I'm sorry, mommy, that you are having to take me out to my friend's birthday party when you aren't feeling so well. Thank you for doing it." Or "I'm sorry that you had to make me soup and crackers (because I"m sick) when you already made a different dinner for everyone else." In other words, their sense of what they are doing, their duties towards other people, extend far beyond "don't step on people's toes" to "don't inconvenience people" and "don't take other people's kind actions for granted."

I remember another mother in my baby group with my firstborn asking me "how I *made* her so empathetic?" and I just cracked up, you can't make someone empathetic. but you certainly can work on them, and have to work on them, to make them attentive to those around them. So sure we start out, even when they are babies, saying "oh! I'm so sorry you fell down! let me kiss it" and saying to them "oh, say sorry to little dulcibella for grabbing her toy." But as they get older our strategies for working with them and modeling for them have to get more sophisticated because they are more sophisticated. Modeling the behavior you want is the first thing you have to do but how many of us are even more self centered than our children? How many times do we demonstrate to them that we take the actions, gifts, griefs, etc...of other people for granted? IF the only "sorry"s they see are ungracious they will be ungracious. If they see their parents courteously deferring to each other, to the grandparents, to strangers they are going to learn (eventually) that "Sorry" goes a lot farther than just a word said after an incident, its a whole way of thinking about the situation and the other person.

If you are still ordering at ten year old, or a fifteen year old, to say sorry you need to rethink your educational strategy because its not working. By the time they are fifteen most social behaviors should be pretty well engrained--or else they are rebelling against them for reasons that need discussion and airing. At that point they are also old enough to experience the natural consequences of failure to observe social niceties, as well as failure to be empathetic. If you are a jerk to your cousins or your friends, well, they won't play with you. If you are a jerk to your older relatives or older people, well, they won't do whatever things you've been counting on them to do. If a ten or fifteen year old kid behaves badly and doesn't say they are sorry--or even behaves selfishly and seems unaware of it--then just forcing them to say sorry (though it may be necessary) j ust isn't enough. So I guess I'm saying that I can see situations in which the original speaker is absolutely right--of course if he really said what was described I think he's an idiot. But there has never been a shortage of idiot motivational speakers.


    Bookmark   March 17, 2007 at 3:50PM
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With my kids I used a technique along the lines of "How do you think (..your action..) made (..the offended person..) feel?" "What do you think you should do about it?" As a result, all 4 are very empathetic and considerate adults.

I don't ever remember making them say they were sorry. If all the response of a parent is to force an "I'm sorry" from the mouth of a child without any attempt to actually make the child feel sorry for their actions, then I would agree that it is a very poor parenting technique.

What the speaker seemed to be advocating was not neglecting the situation, but discussing it with the child. I hope this was not just to clarify the child's own feelings, but also the feelings of the other person.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2007 at 8:07AM
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Hi Sharon -
We've used a process very similar to yours with our kids since they were small, and, usually, they get it. I see them becoming very empathic as they grow. But there have been times when - for whatever reason - they just haven't wanted to "play along" and have simply refused to answer those questions. That's when - for both children's sakes, we "force" them to apologize. We want to impress upon them that if they're going to be in community with others, they have a responsibility for their actions toward those others they're around; and even if it doesn't suit them to apologize in that moment, they may need to look beyond their immediate wants and consider what another person needs.

I think it's intersting that this friend of mine who told me about this speaker was particularly impressed by his apparent use of the word "never" in terms of requiring apolgies for his children. Then, just a few minutes later, her daughter said something mean to my son (they're 6). He stepped up and told her that she'd hurt his feelings and made him feel sad, but she never apologized. Her mom went through the whole litany of trying to help her understand how her actions affected him, and she may or may not have been tracking; but in the end, this child simply said, "No! I'm not saying I'm sorry!" and stomped away from her mom to do her own thing. And that made my son feel even more hurt. But her mom just sat there and did nothing. Yesterday this little girl came over asking to play with him, and he said he didn't want to. Perhaps this "logical consequence" might teach her something ("if you aren't nice your friends won't want to play with you"), but I really do think the mom had a responsibility to teach her daughter that when you live in community with others, you sometimes have to just "suck it up" and apologize, even if you aren't feeling the empathy or remorse in that particular moment.

I know for me apologizing even when I don't feel particularly remorseful (or think I have a perfectly good excuse for saying/doing what I did) can be a good personal discipline, and have discovered that sometimes though my apology to someone may not start out coming from the heart, over the course of the apology I see how it affects them in a healing way - and that has a way of softening my own heart...

    Bookmark   March 18, 2007 at 11:18AM
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Halfdecaf, the last paragraph of your post above, ("I know for me apologizing even when I don't feel particularly remorseful...") is extremely timely and to the point. You can "discipline" yourself, to think and feel as you should. I've experienced this myself and know it to be true.
Good wording on your part.


    Bookmark   March 18, 2007 at 1:25PM
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Red, good catch!

Halfdecaf, that is such a wise statement and so very true. In a sense, it reminds me of the way folks behaved towards one another after 9/11, in a kindlier, more gentle manner. I hope that makes sense.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2007 at 3:30PM
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As a public speaker, I can say that you can blame the public speaker for how his remarks were presented. If he presented in such a way that someone left with the feeling that never saying sorry was ok, then he didn't do a good job as a public speaker...or he actually did believe that.

I learned early on that you have to be very clear about getting your point across when speaking to a crowd. It's not easy but a good speaker does it. A bad one does not.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2007 at 5:52PM
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Red & Pauline - Thanks. I appreciate your kind words, and, Red, your story about how you taught your kids to reach out to others is inspiring. Going to give it a try myself next weekend!

    Bookmark   March 18, 2007 at 9:24PM
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