Rachel Seelig

Can a toddler really apologize? (And other thoughts on Yom Kippur)

There's telling them to 'say you're sorry' and then there's cultivating personal responsibility, kindness and empathy
iStock toddler

“Don’t you dare,” I said, just milliseconds before a red Matchbox car came catapulting toward my head. I scowled at my 2-year-old and gave him a stern finger-waggle. Without hesitating, he trotted over, touched my arm gently and said, “Sorry.”  

I should have been pleased, right? But my toddler’s saccharine “sorry” (pronounced “sowwy”) was devoid of remorse. Were he capable of a genuine apology, he probably wouldn’t have thrown the stupid car at me in the first place. I should add that a few minutes later, he launched a yellow Matchbox car at my head.

With the approach of Yom Kippur, I find myself pondering that word, “sorry.” As both a Jew and a Canadian, I admit it’s one of the most heavily used words in my lexicon. But what purpose does it really serve? Is it a true expression of remorse? An attempt to get off the hook quickly? A way to avoid confrontation? (We Canadians are particularly adept at the latter kind of “sorry.”) 

Every year on the eve of Yom Kippur, my parents and siblings call one another to make amends for the past year’s transgressions. I always considered this an enlightened tradition, until my husband asked me why we always rehearse the same script, something about “sorry for anything bad I’ve done.” Talk about a catchall apology. “It’s sort of formulaic,” he pointed out. “Do you ever apologize for anything specific?” I must admit, he has a point. When we make this round of phone calls, are we truly atoning for wrongdoing, or just trying to check teshuva, the cycle of repentance and forgiveness, off the to-do list?

As you may have guessed, my husband has a hard time saying “sorry.” The reason is in part cultural: born and raised in Germany, he bristles at Canadian niceties and understands guilt as an almost unbearable burden carried on the national level, not as that slightly awkward feeling you get when your great-aunt asks why you don’t want a second slice of her kugel. But saying sorry is also difficult for him because sincere apologies should be difficult. They emerge from an onerous process of self-reflection, acknowledgement of failure, and heartfelt contrition. 

Parenting guru Janet Lansbury sees “sorry” as one of the most difficult things children learn to say because it requires a high level of humility and vulnerability. It’s also loaded with parental expectations. I don’t know any parent who hasn’t asked, cajoled or even forced their child to apologize to the kid whose Lego they swiped or shin they kicked, only to have their child clam up or, even worse, completely fall apart. According to Lansbury, such moments are fueled by our own embarrassment and need to save face among other parents, as opposed to a desire to guide our kids. Without the time required to process their actions, saying “sorry” strikes the child as false, says Lansbury, “and faking emotion does not come naturally to a child.” 

If we want our child to issue an honest apology, we need to give them time, and, most importantly, we need to model empathy and remorse. If we trust our children as we should, suggests Lansbury, they will learn to apologize in their own time. And when they do, they will mean it. “By trusting our children to develop authentic social responses, we give them the self-confidence to be the sensitive and deeply caring human beings we hope they will become.” If we show them this level of compassion, they will undoubtedly return the favor, for what children do more naturally than apologize is forgive. 

Lansbury’s take on apologies dovetails with that of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who saw repentance and forgiveness, the essential ingredients of the Jewish day of atonement, as “the two great gifts of human freedom.” Both are a matter of choice, Sacks insisted, which means they can’t be forced. 

Following anthropologist Ruth Benedict, Sacks distinguished between “shame culture” and “guilt culture,” and ascribed the latter to monotheistic religions like Judaism. Both shame cultures and guilt cultures instruct people how they ought to behave, but they operate very differently. Shame cultures emphasize what others think of you; the motivation for repentance is purely external, fueled by the pressure to avoid public shunning (or “cancel culture,” in today’s parlance). Guilt cultures, by contrast, are fueled by individual conscience, the “inner conversation with the better angels of our nature.” According to Sacks, guilt serves an indispensable purpose; we must feel guilty to begin to make amends and repair the damage we have done. Yom Kippur provides the time needed to undertake this hefty task. It is not a day for rehearsed apologies but for honest soul-searching. 

It turns out the rabbis and parenting experts have much in common. Both focus on opportunities to cultivate personal responsibility, kindness and empathy. The beauty of Yom Kippur is that nobody is exempt. 

This is precisely the lesson I’ve decided to impart this year. Rather than coerce my kids to say “sorry” out of an abundance of shame or discomfort, I want to show them that even I must consciously devote time every year to this important — albeit uncomfortable — undertaking. I want them to know that saying “I’m sorry” isn’t easy for me, either. 

When I sit down with my 5-year-old this Yom Kippur, I will tell him that this is the day when we can talk about mistakes that we’ve made and how we might avoid making them again next year. I will apologize to him for the times that I lost my temper. Perhaps he will reciprocate, perhaps not. The main thing is that he’ll think about it. And he will know that I am thinking about it, too. 

As for my 2-year-old, the lesson might need to wait another year or two. This Yom Kippur, I think I’ll just hide his Matchbox cars in the closet.

This story originally appeared on Kveller. 

About the Author
Rachel Seelig is a freelance writer, scholar of modern Jewish literature and often frazzled mom. She lives in Toronto with her two children and husband, with whom she writes and publishes children’s books under the imprint Lovely Books.
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