Thursday, January 7, 2016

The ingredients of apology

I think I want to change J-son's middle name.  This kid.  He's such an amazing and friendly and competent and good-hearted kid so much of the time . . . and then for an instant, he slips.

Unfortunately, when he slips, he hurts and offends other people, and the damaged relationships have become a  Thing that we've had to Deal With here in our house.  And so, I've spent a lot of time by J-son's side Dealing With Things recently.  And every time a contrite J-son and I sit down together to work yet again on the process of healing, rebuilding, restoring,  I think:  my son's name should be "Redemption".  As in, "J-son Redemption MiserChild".   (Okay, so it's hard to describe this and keep all details anonymous, right?).

Of course, there is restitution and rehabilitation going on.  We're bringing in outside help, not only for their professional expertise but also, honestly, just to give ourselves a break.  But we've also been working with J-son on apologizing -- not a little kid's "I'm SOR-ry!", but a truly sincere, grown-up kind of public repentance.  In particular, we've been working on apology letters to the people he hurt the most.

In these letters, we banish the words "if" and "but".  We don't say "I'm sorry if I hurt you" or "I'm sorry I did it but . . ."  These words only serve to make the apologizer feel better, while infuriating the apologizee.

Instead, here are the many ingredients of each apology letter.  We worked the details out on a separate piece of scratch paper first because it's just so hard to keep all this in mind, and we then painstakingly wrote an apology letters that we could deliver.

  1. Say you're sorry.  
  2. Describe specifically what you did.  (Dang, but this can be hard and embarrassing to do, and just having to say these words out loud is tough.)
  3. Describe how it hurt the person, looking at it from this other person's point of view.  (J-son and I spent the most of our time here, because this is really hard.  He'd offer up something like "This hurt you because now you feel you can't trust me" -- but I'd bring it around to ". . . because you ought to be able to leave your wallet out in your own bedroom and now you feel like you have to lock it up."  That is, take it back to how it affects the life of the person you offended, not how that person feels about you as a person).
  4. Accept responsibility for both your actions and for the hurt they caused.  Say, "That's my fault; I shouldn't have done it, but I did."
  5. Explain that this won't happen again . . . or, more realistically, the steps you're taking to keep this from happening again.  Because honesty here is way more important than making promises you're going to break.

    Oog.  This is so exhausting!  And I'm so very proud of J-son for his hard work in confronting and admitting all of his mistakes, even while I sort of want to strangle the kid for causing all this trouble in the first place.  

    Okay, but there are two more steps still remaining:
  6. Explain why the relationship with this other person is important to you: (you're my sister; you're my friend; I want to keep making jokes with you; I want to be able to confide in you when I need someone to talk with).  
  7. Ask for forgiveness.  This seems hokey, especially to a depressed 17-year-old who's just been through the emotional wringer of steps 1-5, but asking for this other person to take this step of grace is danged powerful.  The request -- I hope you can someday forgive me -- is what remains to be released from Pandora's little jar, now that the other evils have already been let loose among us.  


  1. You should change your name to Wiser Mom! You are wonderful and I've no doubt that all your hard work will be rewarded in the future.

  2. The whole world thanks you for the hard work you are doing to teach him this important life lesson. There are so many adults who still don't know how to do this well. What a delightful young man he is becoming through your guidance and parenting!

  3. I continue to be impressed with you and your hard work in the face of such great challenge. You are truly amazing. I wish we could clone you to make more foster parents for the kids that desperately need love AND firm guidance.

  4. Thanks, all, for these kind words. The encouragement means a lot to me, although the praise makes me feel a little embarrassed. I mean, for me, what choice do I have? I've got to do SOMETHING, and working hard seems like the best way forward.

    But J-son himself really does have a choice -- he could try to be defensive, or protective of his ego, and instead he's choosing humility (super hard for him) and hard work. He's got a long slog of persevering in front of him, but I'm so so so proud of how far he's come. The behavior still occasionally gets out of whack, but the attitude has come a long, long way.