Adopting the Real Meaning of Sorry into Family Life

Sorry. Miriam Webster defines the word as, “a feeling of sorrow or regret.” But when people say those words, “I’m sorry,” do they literally mean they feel sorrow or regret?

While growing up, that word “sorry” was never specifically defined for me. But when my children were growing up, I had one of those “Aha” epiphany moments when I realized that I’d never defined the word “sorry” to them either. From the time they were teeny tiny all I’d been doing was telling my kids “tell or brother (or sister) I’m sorry” when they had done something wrong.

They were just coming into their teen aged years when I noticed I was still telling them they needed to apologize for doing something. Usually it was for the same “something” they’d done the day before! I thought, “Obviously, they’re not getting it.” There had to be a distinct problem with the way I’d been teaching them. Oh, I knew they knew they’d done something wrong, but why were they continuously doing the same thing wrong, over and over?

So that night at the dinner table, I decided to see if I could figure out an answer. I asked each of them if they knew what it meant to say, “I’m sorry.” They both had pretty much the same answer, “It means I’m sorry for what I did.” (they also both looked at me as if to say, “Duh Mom!”) And for some reason, that was the moment that I’d suddenly “got it.” I realized there is a disclaimer I’d neglected to teach my children all those years when I was saying they needed to apologize, a disclaimer that I’d honestly wished I’d realized many years prior.

I suddenly recognized that, to me, those words, “I’m sorry” don’t just mean to apologize for doing something wrong or even Miriam Webster’s description of, “a feeling of regret or sorrow.” Oh, that’s what I’d thought it meant all those years, but what I always wanted it to mean is, “I’m sorry and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” But never once in all my years of apologizing to people had realized this small distinction. It was actually an epiphany for me and I began trying to teach this to my kids.

Recently, in a required online college course, I was learning to understand my own moral codes, including when I say, “I’m sorry” and how my morals were developed. Because of this class, it got me wondering more and more about my children’s values and moral codes. With my children now in their early 20s, I hoped I’d done everything I could to shape them and help them develop positive morals and values. I’d like to think things like that distinction I tried to teach them over 10 years prior made the impact on their lives I was hoping for. Unfortunately, I’ll never really know for sure.

But this class talked a lot about how we might teach morals to our future generations and what kinds of things we unknowingly end up teaching those around us. Are there missed opportunities (like for me, all my years of not really figuring out what I’d wanted it it to mean to apologize)? Did we set a good example for our kids by the way we live our lives? If we weren’t, how much of an impact, if any, could this make on how problems such as bullying may be developed?

On the discussion board of this class, every single student was really taking a deep look at themselves, a philosophical look. We decided there will always be missed opportunities and we’ll probably never know just how many or what they were. But as far as teaching about bullying, the general consensus of us surmised it could impact our children if were continuous mean to them and others. A classmate mentioned that to him it seemed much easier for his children to learn and understand physically hitting hurts the other person. But what about psychological hurts? How many times in our lives have we been completely blind to the times we’ve hurt our children’s or someone else’s feelings? And how do we explain this to our children?

I decided to ask my classmates their meaning of the words, “I’m sorry,” and although there were various answers, when I wrote about what I’d always wanted it meant, they agreed and said that they hadn’t realized it but that was also their unspoken understanding too.

This particular class played a big impact on my life. It got me more used to thinking about my role, not only in my life, but in the lives of others and especially my children. The class was required to write a paper about how we would like to think about ourselves and our morals, how we would like others to think about us and was that the life we were currently living?

But the premise went even deeper than that. The professor asked us about what changes we would need to make in order to be living the life, having the morals we wanted and were we prepared to make those changes? Many of our answers reflected on how much the way we had always acted had set an example for our children. And how much of it was it was for the good or for the bad?

Every so often, I enjoy rereading this college paper. I helps me to reflect on how I’m currently living. How many of the changes I’d hoped to have made had I actually incorporated into my daily life? And my answers are always enlightening. Each time I reread this, I realize, though there may be several changes that I’ve indeed incorporated, there are a few others on my list to go, things like exercising more and not judging myself so harshly.

But one thing I can honestly say I’ve incorporated into my life is what my honest intention behind my apologizes is. I’m sorry and I’ll do everything in my power to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But I’m always curious of what others mean when they apologize to me and I can can only hope the changes I have made had an impact on my children’s lives.

 Janie Saylor is a professional certified life coach with a degree in psychology and a focus on the emerging field of positive psychology. She is mom to two wonderful children, both in their early 20s. Janie’s published, “The Road You’ve Traveled, How to Journal Your Life.” It’s a book which came from various experiences teaching life journaling to people for 10+ years in the Metro Detroit area. She’s is also co-author of the recently published, “When You’re Done Expecting,” a collection of heartfelt stories from mothers all across the globe. Always inspired by nature and observing the emotions of others, Janie wrote many chapbooks, small books of poetry, also collecting those from others among a small poetry community in her neighborhood in the early 2000s. Janie enjoys uplifting others with positive posts and memes on her Facebook page, Become University, “Your Happy Place.”

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