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I had an amazing parenting moment; I got to introduce my children to some holiday movie classics.
While they were most excited for the Nightmare Before Christmas and Frankenweenie around Halloween, Christmas started early with Elf and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The films I was most excited to show them were the Home Alone movies.
While I knew they were obvious winners, triggering my five-year-old’s infections heavy laugh when something is really funny, there was something I noticed at the end of the first movie.
And I guess **SPOILERS** for anyone who has not seen the films. But you’re 30 years too late.
Kevin McAllister (played by Macaulay Culkin) is the eight-year-old who accidentally left home alone while his family and neighbors all go on vacation. Two robbers who are aware of all the families in this neighborhood will be gone, plan to rob them. Kevin sets up traps, and, with the help of his mysterious elder neighbor, stops the robbers and have the police apprehend them.
As Kevin experienced the real world for the first time, showing much more initiative and maturation than I’m sure I ever did at eight, he realizes he misses his family and wants them home. Despite their awful treatment of him, leading to a wish that they would disappear, Kevin is remorseful and craves his family’s company. So when Kevin’s mother shows up, after days of trying to return home to be with him, I was surprised to watch Kevin recoil initially. He had even searched the home looking for them that morning, hoping Santa heard his wish and brought them back. Why the reluctance to embrace his mother?
It’s not until she apologizes that Kevin smiles, running into her arms. As she explains how hard she fought to get home, the entire McAllister family bursts through the front door. A truly cathartic moment for the movie.
The reason this moment stuck out to me so much was that it highlighted how unbelievably valuable an apology is. Be it in personal, private, or public realms; apologies are pivotal in our quest to find and be loved.
Apologies exist in both a personal and public realm, and they carry a lot of weight with them. In the realm of politics and legal matters, an apology, carrying with it the implication of guilt, can have a politician lose a race or a lawyer lose a case. An apology to a lover or close friend might feel like a sign of weakness, an admission of intentionally harming those we love.
Apologies are nothing to be taken lightly, and that’s something both the offender and the offended should know.
Think of the time Senator Fred Thompson apologized to President Bill Clinton. A one-on-one, interpersonal apology. While the apology was made public, the points emphasized by Thompson could be a partial framework for how an apology should be structured, going by expert opinions. He stated the offense, which was suggesting President Clinton met with three aides to send campaign money to an election. He also assumed blame, stating “I should have taken a little more time to explore some of these avenues before I left that implication”.
On the other side, we have an apology from Bill Clinton himself in regards to the biggest scandal of his administration. We will discuss the nuances of his apology, and ones like his, later. For now, looking at the words used, Clinton has a better example of an apology. There’s the offense, an acknowledgment of a romantic affair with Lewinsky and even recognizing it was wrong. He admits that, aside from the affair, his behavior to hide it was equally as reprehensible. Even to his wife.
Then he went on an apology tour.
It didn’t seem Clinton was winning over a lot of people with the tour. He admits as much in his now-famous “Clinton Apology,”
I agree with those who have said that in my first statement after I testified that I was not contrite enough…It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine. First and most important, my family, my friends, my staff, my cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family and the American people. I have asked all for their forgiveness…I must have God’s help to be the person that I want to be. A willingness to give the very forgiveness I seek. A renunciation of the pride and the anger, which cloud judgment, lead people to excuse and compare and to blame and complain.
He told people afterward he would move forward with receiving pastoral guidance and care for his wrongs.
While these examples might not be ideal apologies, they certainly emphasize aspects of an effective apology. First, we must ask, what is an apology?
Apologizing is, first and foremost, a recognition of the harm caused. Be it for something incidental (perhaps knocking over a loved ones drink, stepping on your child’s Lego creation, or accidentally throwing out your pets favorite toy), or intentional (like you turned the oven on, not realizing your daughters beloved blanket was hidden in there for a game you were unaware was happening).
Another part of the apology is to understand that the act has emotionally affected the other person, whether objectively or obscurely. Maybe the harm is caused by using a word, repeating a behavior, or causing some sensation to a sensitive individual recovering from abuse of some kind. An act like throwing out a treasured heirloom unknowingly, or damaging a child’s art project, might be more objective examples of affecting another individual emotionally. So an apology can act, not only as a recognition of wrongdoing, but then how that wrongdoing affected the offended party.
Let’s focus there for a moment. Stay with the offender, the one who might be expected to apologize. What makes for a good apology?
On its most basic level, experts agree that an apology should consist of five different parts. There should be an admission of wrongdoing on behalf of the offender, and the role they played in the act. They should accept responsibility for their part. A promise of forbearance, followed by an expression of regret, and lastly an offer to repair the damage caused.
Admitting you’ve done wrong is the start of a meaningful apology in part because it is an affirmation to the offended. It’s allowing the person who was harmed the recognition that they deserve; it’s acknowledging you hurt them. Even if the person apologizing isn’t directly responsible for what happened, acknowledging their role in the harmful act can be alleviating and begin to help healing relationships. An apology is an opportunity to show that the offender understands what they did and how it hurt the offended.
Accepting responsibility is integral to an appropriate, and effective, apology. As well as affirming what harmed the offended, it takes the blame away from them. It assures them that what happened was not their fault, and they shouldn’t feel shame similar to what one might connect to personal mistakes.
In this regard, apologies can feel like tangible things. The language around apologies acts as though they are material; there are weight and significance to them. We give, accept, or offer apologies. The apology offered, in turn, takes the weight of the offense from the offended and places it on the offender. It normalizes the offended individual’s reaction; it validates their feelings and removes the offender as a threat. When a threat presents itself at the mercy of the offended, admitting fault and revealing their vulnerability, it provides an opportunity for the offended to plan their recovery.
No apology should be complete without the proposal of intentions to correct the behavior. In doing so, the offender again demonstrates their knowledge that a particular action led to harm. Harm reduction to the offended shows an intention to better oneself, despite previous behavior or decision making, and provides accountability to the offender should the same mistake happen again. A verbal contract, if you will. As a society that runs on many unwritten rules, to explicitly offer a correction of past behavior is to provide a contract of conduct between oneself and a harmed relationship. Signed perhaps with a handshake, an embrace, or forgiveness (not to be mistaken as part of an apology), apologies offer no windows for mending relations if a plan is not in place to rebuild its infrastructure. That would include the proposition, and openness, to do what is necessary to repair the relationship
I want to sidestep for a moment. Let’s go back in time to October 2016. A video clip had started circulating, of the then Presidential-candidate, onboard a touring bus with interviewer Billy Bush for Access Hollywood. Mostly consisting of audio taken from a hot mic as Bush was…“fraternizing” with his interviewee, the President-to-be made comments about how he could do “anything” to women because he was a star. Making comments about grabbing their genitals, Bush laughed as the subject of his interview turned women into objects. When the media caught wind of it, many thought that, surely, this would be the end of any serious consideration of the real estate mogul as President.
The Republican Presidential candidate issued an apology soon after the video made its rounds online, but the makeup of it showed, not only was it not an effective apology, but he possessed an utter lack of regret. Dismissed as “locker room talk,” the offender deflected to rival Hillary Clinton’s husband saying Bill had “done much worse”. There was zero implication, by the future President, that he understood his words and actions were harmful to women and others who have been victims of sexual assault and/or abuse. No empathy for the people hurt or involved, denial of acting on the words used during the interview, and minimizing and deflecting blame. It was a demonstration of complete ignorance of the harm they created.
What became more remarkable was the continued support of the party that this candidate was running for. Republicans have long espoused ideologies suggesting they are a party of “family values,” and that they hold the lead figure of their faith above all other considerations; a closer connection to God means a stronger adherence to the law, so they might argue. Specifically, focused on the Christian faith, how would a party connected to conservative, chaste values react to a candidate who made such crude suggestions?
They forgave him. Kayleigh McEnany, who became his press secretary, encouraged forgiveness of the candidate. His running mate, the eventual Vice President of our nation and a staunchly conservative Christian man, said “It’s all about forgiveness.” And while the public agreed, they felt contrition was in order. Whatever it was they were expecting, it happened and his non-apology helped make him the 45th President of the United States.
Deflecting blame and minimizing the perceived harm are two ways to deliver an ineffective apology. Using statements like “I’m sorry you feel that way,” are also largely ineffective in conveying a sincere expression of regret. Largely because it expresses none and does the exact opposite of accepting responsibility. The same goes for using phrases like “I’m sorry you think/believe that…” Saying “I’m not perfect,” can also derail the intended message as the issue is not perfection, nor is it the expectation of such a concept to have been reached. And the biggest sin of apologies, “I’m sorry, but…” The use of “but” negates the apology entirely as it is an attempt to justify the behavior. While an explanation for the behavior may be appropriate or necessary, there is a difference between explaining and justifying.
Whether transparent through this exploration, or not, the act of apology is a social ritual. It is an attempt to show respect and understanding of a person who was wronged; we care about their feelings and are capable of taking action to resolve the dissonance. It helps to remove the threat that an individual imposes on another and quiets their anger. An apology validates the feelings and perception of the offended; it helps remove the questioning and self-doubt that perhaps others have imposed on the offended, or that the offender inflicted against them.
While Home Alone closes with an apology, the sequel, Lost in New York, starts with one as well. The McAllister family is rushing to get to a Christmas concert that they are all performing in, one in which Kevin gets a solo. Ever the attention seeker, Kevin’s brother Buzz takes some artificially lit candles and pretends to perform a drum solo on Kevin’s head to the uproarious laughter of the families witnessing the spectacle.
Kevin retaliates by pushing Buzz. And the entire chorus falls to the ground, knocking the elder accompanist off her platform.
Buzz offers an apology to the McAllister family, articulating what sounds like a sincere apology. He focuses on his actions and how it was inappropriate to be displayed in the setting where it happened. Then he apologized to Kevin. A simple “I’m sorry,” and nothing more.
Anyone that has seen the original knew Buzz’s real personality and history. He is stereotyped as the older sibling who knew how to get in trouble and not get caught. He has a pet tarantula, a BB gun, Kevin finds Playboy magazines in his hidden stash as well as fireworks. He’s focused on women’s hygiene when they’re packing for France, he pretends to vomit to mock Kevin not getting the pizza he wanted. Buzz is a creep.
With the apology, the family is buttered up, but Kevin can see right through the ruse. Before he says his piece, upon the urging of his mother, Buzz leans in and whispers “Beat that, you little trout-sniffer.” The viewer becomes as enraged as Kevin; how could such a phony apology suffice? This was a bigger performance than the one he had unintentionally destroyed, and he didn’t even say what he was sorry for. To drive the point home, Kevin’s obnoxious, free-loading Uncle Frank continues to chuckle at the prank and grunt at his nephew about ruining his vacation like he did the year before.
And thus the movie formula continues.
Assuming we were a member of the McAllister family, would we find Buzz’s apology acceptable? Did it reflect a true understanding of the harm caused? While he offered no justification for his behavior, it remains inadequate. Judging by the response from Kevin’s family, namely not a single other person providing any pretense of an apology, they’re not even remotely aware of how abusive their silence is in light of Buzz’s humiliation of his younger brother. This is the equivalent of pressing charges on a person who broke the finger of an assailant trying to defend themself.
Is Kevin right to not offer an apology? To offer “I’m not sorry” in response to his mother’s request? Well, why would he not offer an apology? After all, despite his humiliation, didn’t Kevin inflict retributive justice by pushing Buzz and knocking over all the kids of parents who laughed at him?
As a stoic philosopher, Epictetus taught us, “Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing.”
While Kevin should still apologize (no doubt it takes two to tango), not apologizing still sends a specific kind of message. Sometimes to ourselves, but mostly to others.
Apologies really should be viewed as gifts; they present a vulnerability in the apologizer, allowing, in essence, an opportunity to take advantage of the opportunity. Similar to how the handshake originated as a demonstration of showing another you were unarmed and not a threat. An apology should carry a level of seriousness that surrender in battle would.
Overuse of an apology results in the same response as someone over-complementing. Aside from the discomfort of having apologies tossed out for the slightest inconvenience, they can be hurtful and even seen as sarcastic. Inevitably, it would result in further perturbation of the emotions tied to the circumstance. Psychologically, over-apologizing makes the one offering it feel more of a need to seek forgiveness, but less and less like they’ve been absolved. It depletes their self-esteem. As an interesting counter-point, not apologizing raises a person’s self-esteem.
And, fun fact, men apologize less often than women. This is likely because men have a higher threshold for what “counts” as behavior necessitating an apology. Do with that what you will.
To offer an alternative, specialists suggest using “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry” for minuscule offenses. It acts as an acceptance of the criticism offered and removes the need for exoneration.
Within the realm of parenting, managing when, and how, apologies are given is mutually beneficial. Both in terms of the parent-child relationship, and the development of the child as an autonomous being. Research has provided evidence that children who know how to give a well-constructed, and sincere, apology are better at building and maintaining relationships. It even helps them manage difficult professional relationships well into adulthood. It starts with the adults in their lives wording apologies that model self-reflection and accountability.
People like Dr. Roseanne Lesack, director of the child psychology clinic at Nova Southeastern University, also advocate that apologies are an opportunity for children to explore and understand emotions. She suggests that parents, after the apology, talk through the events in question to understand how they unfolded and how it made them feel.
Refusing to apologize to a child, especially when an apology is warranted, teaches children something as well. It teaches them that the act of apologizing is a signal that they’ve done something bad, or are bad themselves. With that comes shame. They also learn that it’s okay to cause damage to a relationship and not concede any fault or admit repair should be done. By not modeling apologies, children learn they lose status, and they should not want to do it unless forced to do so.
If children have someone in their lives modeling appropriate apologies, they learn that we all make mistakes. Especially if they see someone, like their own parent, who might be considered infallible otherwise, apologies have the power to influence children’s ability for self-reflection. They learn to accept fault, that mistakes are okay to make, that anyone can make them, and that apologies help the other person feel better.
Mr. Rogers, ever the example of empathy and learning, openly spoke of an opportunity he had with his grandson, Alexander. With blunt earnestness, Rogers tells of a time he went to his son’s house after a hard day at work. Carrying the weight of the emotions from a stressful day, he came into an area where his grandsons were playing. Fearing their playing, involving water hoses, was treading too close to himself, Rogers insisted they turn off the water. Hurting from his interaction with them, he called his son after returning home and spoke with Alexander. He expressed feeling upset about things that had happened before arriving at their home and how it was unfair of him to take it out on Alexander.
“Oh Buhbuh,” Rogers says, mimicking Alexander. “Everyone makes mistakes.”
“I realized that if I hadn’t called him,” Rogers continues, “I might not have ever received that wonderful gift of Alexander’s sweet forgiveness.”
And what of the Bible? One of humanity’s “go-to” books on ethics, one must imagine the length to which Jesus required others to take credit for maladaptive behavior. Unfortunately, requests for apologies are few and far between.
Matthew 5:23–24 urges those offering a sacrifice at the altar to reconcile with those “who have something against you” before completing the ritual (understanding that an offering was one made to God in a Jewish religious ritual, which also required cleanliness). In terms of a direct command to apologize from Jesus, that’s it. Our other passages, coming from letters of authors not focused on Jesus’ life, advocate for the confession of sins. Passages like James 5:6, 1 Peter 3:8–12, Hebrews 12:14–15, or 1 John 1:9. While confessions may be a part of an act of contrition, one must remember not all who confess also apologize.
There is more about forgiveness in the Bible, but being open to forgiving means one must be open to receiving an apology and for the person who offended them to apologize. Meaning there is biblical precedent to expect an apology for wrongdoing.
In Luke 17:3–4, Jesus insists that, even if your neighbor sins against you seven times in a day, you must forgive them. Matthew 18:15–17 has Jesus insisting you gather people together, should someone not apologize, and throw all transgressions they have committed at them until they apologize. Jesus tells us, at Mark 11:24–25, we must offer forgiveness while we are in prayer. The expectation of forgiveness is so much a part of the Christian identity, it is part of the central ideology of the faith.
All of this is spun on its head with Matthew 7:12,
In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
If we expect others to come to us for forgiveness, we should be expected to seek forgiveness from others when we have done wrong.
The Bible doesn’t advocate for an apology the way we understand it in our modern society. Apologies are part of the social fabric of the culture we live in. Certainly, forgiveness is advocated for heavily in the Bible, but what is offering forgiveness without an additional offer of how to prevent the behavior? Of how the action affected the offended? What could the snowball effect be, inclusive of damage caused by another in the wake of the offense? It asks for absolution, but it doesn’t ask for accountability. We know we harmed, but we don’t know, through the biblical model, how to take responsibility.
And as we have seen in the wake of apologies from people like Bill Clinton, the current President, and others, apologies without accountability are theater with the intent to save face. True growth, respect, love, and consideration are shown to the offended when the offender is insightful of how their behavior affected the relationship, and what work should be done to repair it. It’s allowing vulnerability to an already injured comrade.