Do your Children Need to Repent?

For Jews, the season of introspection and teshuvah (repentance) is here. As teachers and parents, we look inward and begin the work of asking forgiveness of those we have wronged. It’s heavy stuff, and one might not think it appropriate for little ones. Actually, though, this is a major part of the work we do each day with the children. They don’t get it right all at once, but they develop abilities that, perhaps sadly, may exceed that of many adults. How are the children taught to deal with hurting others?
Let me say this first: they are not forced to say they are sorry, and they are not taught that those words have a magical power to erase the wrong they have done. Many children (and, again sadly, adults) seem to think ‘I’m sorry’ is to be some sort of magic eraser of behavior (oh that there were such a product!). I think they think that because they have been taught that. If, when they have messed up or lost control and hurt someone, they are told by an adult, with the adult standing over them, often physically restraining them, to say those words (and think how often the child in this scenario is looking at the managing adult while reciting the words, too), they say them and then they are released. Physically from the teachers grasp and, as far as they know, metaphysically from the guilt of their action. They are also not punished. That too, seems to be a way for those who have done wrong to feel like everything is all better without ever helping the hurt or examining one’s one behavior.
In our classroom, we make it harder for them. Harder and more meaningful. Children are sometimes upset and confused to learn that the ‘magic words’ may not be enough in our room, but they seem grateful when they become a real agent in their relationships rather than a rote reciter. That doesn’t mean we don’t use those words. They can be deeply powerful to say and to hear, and of course we sometimes feed the words to kids, but it is in a context of respect for others and honoring their relationships.
To show how it works, I’ll first show a scenario with the ‘forced apology’ method.
Let’s say Betty and Veronica are playing with blocks. Betty wants a block that Veronica is using. She says “gimme that” and Betty says “no”. Veronica really wants it, so she pushes Betty down and grabs the block. Betty cries. Teacher rushes over. Teacher hears Betty’s sad story, looks at an angry Veronica and says “Poor little Betty. Veronica, don’t push! Now, say you’re sorry to Betty.” Veronica mumbles those words, and the teacher is off to the next challenge. I am not dissing this teacher. I have been this teacher. Depending on the ratios and the make-up of the class, the teacher may not feel she has time for much more, and she is doing things the way they have been done forever. How are things, left though? Betty is a poor victim, feeling perhaps self-pity or righteous smugness, but probably still fuming at Veronica, and what social skills has she learned? Someone wrongs you, you cry for help and someone in charge will sort it out. And Veronica? She feels ashamed and alienated. Don’t you, when you’ve been publically rebuked? Or perhaps you are likely to feel even angrier, and so might Veronica (They think I’m bad, we’ll I’ll show them bad!). Odds are, she is not feeling like sharing her snack-cookie with Betty.
Here’s how we would try to handle the same situation:
Teacher rushes over, sits with both children, perhaps a hand on a shoulder of each and asks Betty what happened. Teacher may say some validating but non-accusatory thing like “I’m so sorry. No one likes to be pushed”, then, while comforting Betty, the teacher listens to Veronica’s story. The teacher listens for the positive intention, and helps Veronica find it, too: “Oh, you wanted that block. I can see how you would want that.” The teacher then guides Veronica in observing how her behavior has affected her friend, Betty. To have empathy and compassion. Both girls are asked what Veronica could do to make it better. One or both may think of the idea of an apology, in which case it may be given, or Betty may say she would like some ice for her injury, or help continuing her disrupted building project. Then we discuss how Veronica may have better achieved what she wanted. Betty learns to ask for what she needs with her own voice, be part of problem solving, and that Veronica and she can work things out. Veronica learns that she is a ‘learner’ and can try things differently next time (and of course it will not really be next time, or the next next time, but eventually). She gets why what she did was wrong, thinks of how to fix it, and works on not doing it again. That is teshuvah. It’s not easy, and not always even immediately possible. Emotions, or bodies, may run too strong on either side to have a real discussion at the time of a rupture in a relationship, and then the children practice calming down before trying to work things out, which plenty of us could get better at, too.
To all my readers of every kind, may you have a shanah tovah- a new year of sweetness and growth and learning and being the best us-es we can.