On Saturday morning, my oldest son had a melt down. It started while he and our youngest were playing in the “club.” (a/k/a a very large closet under our stairs). Our oldest, who was inside the club, opened the door and clobbered our youngest son in the head with the door knob. Tears instantly ensued from our youngest.
I was in the kitchen.
Kory was in the bedroom.
Neither of us knew what was wrong.
And because “little bit” is our third born, and because his screams didn’t sound of broken bones, gushing blood, or missing teeth, neither of us came running.
Instead, we called out from our respective locations, asking why “little bit” was crying.
“I hit him in the head with the clubhouse door,” our oldest son said.
“Then tell him you’re sorry, get boo-boo bunny out of the freezer, and give him a hug,” I replied.
Tears ensued again. This time, though, from the oldest boy.
“But I didn’t do it on purpose!” he yelled.
“No one said you did. But when we hurt someone, we apologize,” I explained. “And we do what we can to make them feel better.”
The hysteria continued.
I’m talking feet stomping.
Wheeping-sobs-coming-from-the-pillows kind of hysteria.
(And I thought girls were dramatic.)
But then I realized.
Regardless of the number of times we’ve discussed it, this child still doesn’t understand the difference between what it means to say “I’m sorry” and what it means to say “Will you forgive me?”.
And he thought that we thought he hit his brother in the head with the club door on purpose.
With a mean spirit.
And with the desire to hurt him.
All because we asked him to say “I’m sorry.”
It would be hurtful to anyone to be accused of doing something on purpose that happened on accident. But to this particular child, who is burdened with perfectionist tendencies and a fear of failure, it was devastating.
Do your kids understand the difference between “I’m sorry” and “Will you forgive me?”
Have you ever thought about the distinction?
In Growing Kids God’s Way, Gary Ezzo says this about the difference between “I’m sorry” and “Will you forgive me?”:
When a child disobeys a parent, teacher, or another authority, or when he offends a sibling or a peer, he should confess his wrong and ask for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness from another human being is an act of humility. At that point, you are no longer in control of the situation, nor can you dictate the conditions of your apology.
Asking for forgiveness does not mean saying, “I’m sorry.” That phrase is reserved for unintentional, childish mistakes.
To say, “I’m sorry” is to acknowledge a mistake; to ask for forgiveness is to acknowledge motives of the heart.
“I’m sorry” is what we say when we accidentally step on someone’s toe.
When we accidentally drop a glass plate on the kitchen floor while trying to clear the table. When we accidentally put something in the dryer that really really really needed to be hung dry and now won’t fit on the big toe of its owner. (Not that this has ever happened in our house.) It is also the first phrase we could utter as an expression of regret before we seek forgiveness.
“Will you forgive me?,” on the other hand, is reserved for purposeful and intentional wrongdoings.
It’s reserved for when we know better, and, yet, we do it anyway.
It’s an important distinction. Because when we intentionally offend another person, we are obligated to seek forgiveness. And this is done by asking for it, not by demanding it.
Saying “I’m sorry” is easy. At least it is for me. Asking for forgiveness is not.
It’s an act of humility that puts someone else in the driver’s seat.
It’s a risk. Because there’s always a chance that forgiveness won’t be offered.
Until Kory and I took Growing Kids God’s Way, I was characterized by saying “I’m sorry.” It took a lot of work to change my language. And it’s still very difficult for me. Every time.
But when I’ve wronged someone and I ask for forgiveness, it begins a process of restoration in that relationship unlike anything that “I’m sorry” can accomplish. I can feel the restoration begin almost as soon as I utter the words.
So we’re teaching this to our kids. And we’re practicing it ourselves. In our home, if we accidentally make a mistake, “I’m sorry” is acceptable. Nothing more is required.
But if we’ve intentionally offended someone, we will say something along these lines and are coaching our kids to do the same thing:
“I’m sorry that I ________.”
“That was wrong of me because ________. To make it right, I’m going to ______.”
“Will you please forgive me?”
Kory and I offer these words to each other regularly. Our kids offer them to us and to one another. And get this. When Kory and I offend our kids (gasp), we offer them these words too.
We’ve found that asking for forgiveness opens the door for grace to enter the room.
It softens the hearts of both the offender and the offended. It reminds us that none of us is perfect, that we all make mistakes, and that we need to move beyond those mistakes back into a state of right relationship.
When forgiveness is offered by the offended, it also puts the incident in the past.
In our house, we encourage one another to not resurrect past wrongs as weapons in a new incident. What’s done is done. And when forgiveness is given, the incident is over. We bury it. And we don’t mention it again.
Obviously, given this morning’s events, we’re still very much in teaching mode on this principle. And we’re at different stages of the game with each child. But we talked with our oldest son and explained the difference between “I’m sorry” and “Will you forgive me?” one more time on Saturday morning.
If we’re consistent in our teaching, we’re confident he’ll eventually get it. And he’ll be blessed with a life skill that will serve him well in his adult relationships down the road.
In the meantime, we held his hand through the process of saying “I’m sorry” to “little bit.” (Who is fine by the way.)
Is there someone in your life from whom you need to seek forgiveness? Conversely, is there someone you need to forgive today?