Thursday, August 31, 2017

#SorryNotSorry: Teaching Children About the Art of an Apology

We have entered the Jewish month of Elul--the final month preceding the High Holiday season. This is a month of "getting ready" from the inside out. We prepare ourselves, our families and our homes for the upcoming new year. You can hear the sound of the shofar blasting from Jewish homes throughout the month of Elul as we get ready to hear it in shul on Rosh Hashanah. We begin to take a personal inventory as we look over the previous year. What areas were we strong in? Where do we need a bit of work? Are there people in our lives with whom we need to make amends? During the month of Elul, we are called upon to be extra kind, extra charitable, to take on extra learning and extra mitzvos. We are encouraged to pray extra hard as this is an auspicious time to have our prayers answered; The King is in the field!

When it comes to bringing down the loftiness of Elul to our children, I favor a hands on approach. We play, read and sing about this special time. I fill our davening basket with some seasonably appropriate props and books. S is having a great time revisiting these toy shofarot we made last Elul! Y is hearing some of the same colorful board books about holidays throughout the Jewish year that S loved when he was a baby. (S is enjoying the opportunity to share them with his brother now and helping me read them!)

We are using (and reusing) a lot of the fabulous free printables from A Jewish Homeschool Blog, including this adapted version of her Elul calendar to track the days on which we hear the shofar:

I love the month of Elul. It has all of my favorite things. The back-to-school season. The anticipation of holidays to come. And a built-in time to teach children about one of the most challenging and rewarding social skills of life: how to say "I'm sorry." I have read, written and talked at length over the past few years about the topic of raising children to be empathetic. Some research indicates that empathy is a character trait children must be taught. To an extent, I agree with that. I also believe that many children naturally feel empathy even from a very young age--perhaps in even a less inhibited form than their adult counterparts. I do feel that children benefit from being shown through modeling how to express empathy. However, after several years of teaching, I made a conscious (and at the time, unpopular decision) to eliminate forced apologies in my classrooms. No more would I require my students to say "I'm sorry" to one another as part of the process of conflict resolution.

In My Classrooms...
How then, did I expect my students to learn empathy? If they did not apologize for their indiscretions, how would they learn to repair damaged relationships or at the very least, learn that their behavior was unacceptable? To be clear--I did not eliminate dealing with and working through classroom conflicts. I merely eliminated the verbal prompt of "now say that you're sorry!" If you work around, live with or remember being a kid, you've probably heard it: "You have to say you're sorry!" "Fine! Sorry!" or, "but I said I'm sorry..." "Yeah, but you didn't mean it!" I vividly remember a day in one of my classrooms when I watched (in amazement) as one of my students walked up to another student simultaneously extending an apology and his left foot to kick his pal in the shin. When I picked my jaw up off the ground, I asked him "what happened?" to which he replied:
"It's ok. I said I'm sorry."
That is an extreme example, of course, but it became clearer and clearer to me that teaching children to say "I'm sorry," was not an effective method of teaching empathy. At its best, it was incomplete and at its worst, it was actually hindering the goal at hand. What I began to replace it with was a combination of modeling and verbal support. Take the kicking example from above. Rather than addressing the child doing the kicking initially (which is a tough one, because you really want to address that), I would get down on the children's level and look at the child who was kicked.
"Ouch! A kick can really hurt!"
I would also then turn to the child who did the kicking and encourage him to see the hurt in his friend.
"Look at his face. He's really sad. What can we do to help?" I was careful to match the level of emotion my students felt, to depict it both facially and in my tone of voice. (I happened to be working at the time with children who needed extra support in this area of social development.) Sometimes the children would have their own ideas in response: "I can say 'I'm sorry,'" was often one of them and in those instances, I supported and encouraged it! Other times, they might come up with sharing a toy or offering a hug or an ice pack. Sometimes they may have wanted to draw a picture or write an apology to their friend. More and more, I became amazed and impressed by how my students could navigate and work through their conflicts with very little of my input and furthermore, the behaviors associated with those conflicts genuinely improved. Sometimes all it would take from me was to allow a space for both parties to state their end of the experience, perhaps repeating their statements as I heard them or just offering a simple "what can you both do to repair the relationship?" These are big words for little people, but they give a sense of value and respect to the importance of building and preserving connections with one another.

But How Do They Learn About Apologizing?
If you eliminate saying "I'm sorry" from conflict resolution, how is it learned? I am a strong believer in teaching at teachable moments. In the midst of a conflict when emotions are on high, most children (and adults) are not ready to learn. It is also important to add here that in times of escalation where children are unsafe (even potentially in the example given above when a child is kicking), it is beneficial to create enough space for safety of all parties, even if that means removing children from an area to regain their calm and revisiting the conflict resolution part later. As adults, this is important, too. If I am not in a space to mentally or physically handle a conflict, I model taking a break and taking the space to calm myself down! And when it is an appropriate time, that modeling comes in handy again. Children learn a great deal from watching us. If I make a mistake in my classrooms, I model apologizing to another teacher or to another student. Nobody is perfect and one of the greatest gifts a child can receive--even greater than an apology in and of itself--is the permission it gives for everyone to make mistakes and be able to try again.

I also love to teach formal lessons on the art of apology as a group. Elul and Tishrei are two Jewish months that truly invite these lessons. Teshuva is the Hebrew word used for this process of feeling remorse and making amends--but what it literally translates to is "return." When we feel remorse and when we make amends, we are able to return--to return to our relationships, to return to a clean slate and to return to our own sense of inner peace. And so, when I teach about apologies, I explain in this way:
Sorry has three parts: It's something you feel, something you say and something you do. I teach my students to say they are sorry when they feel it in their hearts and that beyond that, to think of something to do that will repair the relationship. Some children do not feel comfortable with the verbal part and I think that is fine. Forced apologies are almost never helpful. For one thing, even adults do not always feel sorry in the heat of a conflict, so how is saying it even remotely helpful (or genuine for that matter)? And furthermore, we are all familiar with the adage, actions speak louder than words. Hearing "I'm sorry" may not be as genuine and meaningful to one or both parties in a conflict as a plan to carry things out differently in the future and an action put with that plan. Beyond that, I give education and support about handling, identifying and regulating strong emotions. Emotional regulation is the core muscle of empathy. Without a strong core, everything else suffers.

In My Home...
After speaking to fellow teachers, parents and professionals who work with children about my philosophy on apologies, one question frequently came up. Sure, this seemed to make sense in a classroom, but what about at home? Shouldn't we teach our own children to apologize at home? There are very different challenges to contend with in the home environment--like having respect for parents and sibling relationships. When I first started discussing this issue in professional settings, S was still pre-verbal. His worst offenses at the time were the occasional diaper blowout or projectile spit up. And now, as the mother of a three year old (and five month old), I am here to tell you that at home it's easier said than done!

For one thing, there's my patience. In my classrooms, my patience is almost infinite. At home, my patience is almost infinite until 4PM when it decreases exponentially for the next three hours until bedtime. And as my patience runs low, my attachments run high. It's harder as a parent not to "take things personally." I'm attached to how my children treat us as parents. I'm attached to how they treat each other. I'm attached to how they will treat other children and be treated by them. I am no more eager to see my child be the one that is kicking than I am to see him be the one that gets kicked. And yet, in my home (whether or not it is before 4PM) I am my children's first teacher. This is their safe haven after a day in the world at large and if ever there was a place that they should be able to let out their more colorful sides, this is the one! Sometimes that requires me to take a step back (and maybe a little break as well) to be able to teach at home the same way that I taught in my classrooms. I can tell you in a blog post in and of itself the many things I have done here that don't work, but for the sake of this blog post, here's a few that do:

  • Modeling: in language & deed! Our children are always watching. They see us before we've had our morning coffee, they see us burn the supper, they see us step on Legos and, once in a while, they probably see us lose our %$#@. Those are the times they are really watching--and not just to see that we need our coffee, messed up dinner, hurt our foot or occasionally go berserk--they're really watching to see what we do next. And so when it comes to that morning coffee, I will even say "I am really grumpy until I eat and drink something in the morning and I need a little space." And with that "caramelized" quiche, I might say "Oh, I'm so frustrated and disappointed! That's not how I wanted it to come out!" And with that Lego that will have to be surgically removed from my arch, I might say "Ouch! Stepping on a Lego can really hurt and I see a lot of Legos on this floor. I wonder what can be done to make sure that our feet don't get hurt?" (Incidentally, naming the problem usually works infinitely faster and better at getting little hands to come pick up those Legos than the usual direct request to "come pick up these Legos right now before I take them away altogether!) And about that meltdown? That's when I model giving myself a break, removing myself from the situation and returning later to repair the relationships. One of the greatest gifts my own parents gave me in moments of heated conflict was that aspect of return and repair. To date, I remember very few details of those heated arguments but I remember every detail of when they came back to my room to talk about it and work through our apologies. 
  • Taking a Break: I personally do not use "time outs" or even "time ins" here as a means of discipline. I do encourage taking a break from scenes or scenarios that are escalating. All children are different. Some do best with adult company and support to help calm down and others (like S) genuinely prefer a little space. As parents, we also sometimes require a bit of space and a little break. (Like before that coffee and breakfast...) Research shows that humans have an innate need to connect with and attach to primary caregivers. Conflict in these relationships ignites that fight or flight response in children and triggers fears of abandonment. It is not reasonable or realistic to assume that we will never have these conflicts. It is also not fair to berate ourselves when they happen. I like to take that airplane motto to heart when it comes to those especially intense moments: make sure you affix your own oxygen mask before assisting others. That sometimes means that I say "mommy needs a break!" It's often better (and easier) to remove myself from the situation to take the space and time to calm down than to remove my equally exasperated offspring. I also try very hard in these moments to remind my son (and myself) that we will come back to resolve this when we are calm. And follow through. 
  • Talk about it. A lot. In addition to watching, kids are listening all day. Many of the greatest frustrations of early childhood arise out of a language barrier. I think that we adults often forget that our primary spoken language in the home is not actually our child's first language. Just ask Y who will likely respond with something sounding akin to a pterodactyl. Using language throughout the day to name, work through and express our strong emotions does a great deal toward building our children's emotional vocabulary and resilience. And be honest. It would be great if we always felt peachy keen and chipper, but we don't. And neither do our children. Naming our feelings of frustration, disappointment, irritability, etc, can be helpful for our children (and for us). I still remember recently getting very upset when I went to pour milk into my morning coffee only to discover it had gone bad. We order our milk in bulk from another state a case of 9 half gallons at a time and use a deep freezer for storage since we cannot access the type of kosher milk we use locally. I was so disappointed and hungry and desperate for that coffee just the way I like it (no, I'm not addicted, I could stop anytime, I just don't want to...) that I lost it. I thawed a non-dairy option to create my second-choice of a cup of coffee and gave myself a break to sulk on the couch when S came up and asked me "Do you feel better?" And I didn't feel better yet. I was still mad and sad and disappointed. And I was honest when I told him "No, not yet, but I'm taking a little break and taking some deep breaths and I think I will feel better really soon." 
In the Classroom, In the Home, Here, There and Everywhere:
PLAY! This is really where the most learning happens at this point. Children work through strong emotions, fears and anxieties, test limits and boundaries and express their innermost curiosities and dreams through play. Creating an environment that encourages and allows for open ended dramatic play is a great way to foster this natural tendency. Having clay and dough to pound is a great outlet for an angry fist. Having places to jump and run and bubbles to blow and catch is a great way to let off steam. Play wrestling and rough-housing (when done with safety and supervision) are great ways to release the energy of the day. Drawing fast and vigorous scribbles can put angry feelings on paper instead of into hurtful words. And reading, playing and role-modeling about challenging emotions and conflicts--even getting a little silly with it--are great ways to build an arsenal of tools and supports when it's "not in the moment" so our children can handle the heat of when they are in the moment. 

Elul is a great month to focus both inwardly and outwardly on these helpful techniques and any others that work in your home and/or classroom. Apologizing truly is an art and so, too, is forgiveness. We tend to be infinitely more forgiving of our children's misdeeds than we are of our own--and so today I wish us all the experience of feeling as much empathy toward ourselves as we do for our children, and a season ahead of happy and meaningful playing!

A Little Throw-back Thursday from this time last year!

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