What “I’m Sorry” Needs to Mean

  by Andrew Wolgemuth

How many times have I looked into a lovely yet frustrated, tear-stained face and asked for just one thing? About a gajillion.

Say, “I’m sorry.”

Along with “Blow your nose,” “Turn the light off when you leave a room,” and “Chew with your mouth closed,” “Say, ‘I’m sorry’” is an oft-repeated phrase in my dadcraft vocabulary. Perhaps she pushed her sister. Or mouthed-off to her mother. Maybe she chucked food or ignored my instruction. No matter the infraction, she needed to apologize.

Merely uttering that simple two-word sentence initially suffices. The kiddo says “I’m sorry,” and life can go on. That’s that.

But soon said kiddo figures out how easy this system is to game. “I’m sorry” becomes a get-out-of-jail-free card, and a pattern emerges: Do the wrong, say the phrase, return (within minutes) to doing the wrong. Or, Do the wrong, say the phrase (begrudgingly and full of angst), and life goes on with a heightened level of exasperation (for dad most of all).

At that point (typically when a little person is 2 or 3 years old), I’ve taken to talking with my kids about what sorry should actually mean. Needing to break an empty “I’m sorry” cycle, I have to help the apologizer realize that the words I’m asking for aren’t magic in and of themselves . We want “I’m sorry” to represent repentance and change, not merely “I got caught.” So I note (and note and note and re-note) the two things that “I’m sorry” means. The spiel typically sounds something like this:

I want you to say “I’m sorry for X” to your sister. And as you do so, remember the two things that “I’m sorry” means:

  1. I wish I hadn’t done that.
  2. I will try not to do it again.

Pretty simple, but – when this is understood – an apology becomes something more than it had been before. How do I know this? Well, I’m doing my best to practice it too because I need this reminder. I want my apologies to my children to reflect repentance and change as well. And so in my house, my children regularly hear me say variants of: I’m sorry that I was impatient. I wish that I hadn’t done that, and I’ll try not to do it again. As with so much of dadcraft, things work best when I’m modeling what I’m attempting to teach.


Apologizing might not feel like something to strive for, but a key to dadcraft is acknowledging that we fail often. And once the needed apologies have been aired, maybe it’s time for some science fun? Picture by David D; Used via Creative Commons license.