Yesterday I realized something I should have figured out a long time ago. For Eila, the words “I’m sorry,” imply that she’s done something intentionally bad. At daycare, two kids in a fight have to apologize to one another and they have to use those exact words, “I’m sorry.” At home if she flouts authority she’s sent to her room to think about it and can’t come out until she’s ready to say the words–and again I’ve been asking for those words exactly.
The upshot is that when yesterday she broke something by mistake, she had no words to express how she felt. She knew “I’m sorry,” wasn’t right, since she hadn’t broken it on purpose. There was talk and there were tears. I’m not sure if she came away much wiser, but I know I did.
Parents need to have working solutions to all the moral questions in the world and, among them, action and intention is a tough nut. It’s not that hard to explain that one is still responsible for things one does accidentally, but one has to know that this needs explaining–over and over again. One has to explain that the words “it’s alright honey, but try to be more care careful in the future” will come more easily to one’s lips in response to an “omigosh, I’m so sorry!” And by the time one is done explaining, the words feel like a formula with the merely pragmatic purpose of pushing bad things away.