Faking It

No ladies, this post is not about that!


It’s about apologies. Specifically, what is the societal purpose of the apology?

And it comes in light of a story Maggie shared on her blog a couple of weeks ago. Long post short, her youngest daughter was shoved around and choked to the point of physical harm by two young boys in a McDonald’s playland. After climbing into the structure to help her daughter down out of the tubes, the boys’ parents “called their boys down, [and] forced them to make apologies while the other parents in the room stared hard at their own lunches.” All these days later and I can’t get the scene out of my head. And it got me thinking: What purpose did making the boys apologize serve? Since the boys were quite young – Maggie figures they were only four or five years old – odds are good they had no regrets. Sure their play time got cut short, which definitely sucks when you’re that young, but at the end of the day they probably didn’t remember the little girl they scared to screams.

I was a wiggle-butt as a youngster. Couldn’t sit still. One Sunday we were visiting a church and I just wouldn’t stop moving around in the pew. Apparently I disrupted the Spirit because after the service my dad made me apologize to the preacher. To this day I remember the blood rushing to my pudgy cheeks as I said I was sorry to the ground at the pastor’s feet and then sulked away, completely defeated. Was I truly sorry? I don’t know. But I do remember being embarrassed and humiliated.

In his essay titled “On Letting It Slide,” Jacksonville University philosophy professor Scott Kimbrough points out that, “[w]e teach our children to apologize by forcing them to say things they don’t really mean. A true description of my son’s state of mind after hitting his sister would go something like this: “I hurt her because I wanted to.” In place of this accurate account, we teach him to say that he’s sorry. Perhaps someday he’ll mean it. In the meantime, he at least learns that hitting will not be tolerated. Plus his sister gets to see him humbled for his wrongdoing.” Kimbrough echoes the thoughts of William Ian Miller who, in his 2003 book Faking It, claims that “[a]pology is a ritual, pure and simple, of humiliation.”

And according to both philosophers, this isn’t a bad thing.

Kimbrough explains that “[i]n characterizing apology as a humiliation ritual, Miller by no means rejects or discourages it. Quite the contrary, he sees that injurers must pay for their wrongs or they will never learn to stop committing them. Like many other cases of moral instruction, the teaching of the art of apology sacrifices truth for more immediately worthy goals, including peace and character building.” In Dr. Kimbrough’s house, not only is the apology required, but so is the forgiveness; when his son hits his daughter and subsequently mumbles an apology, his daughter is required to accept the apology. “She doesn’t mean it, either. But the message of the exchange is clear: hostilities are at an end, and further escalations will not be tolerated. Hopefully someday they will learn to settle their differences civilly, even sincerely. As Miller notes, however, it’s foolish to hold out for sincerity in the short term.”

Aside of the humiliation factor and the hard lessons we are taught through embarrassment, are most apologies just bullshit? Moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his remarkable little book On Bullshit, defines bullshit partly as a lack of concern for the truth; the bullshitter doesn’t care whether what he’s saying is true or false, just that the listener is somehow affected by what he says. Consider this in light of your relationship: How many times have you said you were sorry, even if you didn’t really mean it, just to bridge a gap and get on with the business of being a couple? Conversely, how many times have you accepted an apology even if you suspected the one apologizing was being accommodating? Bullshitting? Yes, even we adults lack sincerity. And yet we often let it slide and neglect to call it for the sake of harmony.

But what about kids? Are we teaching them to bullshit? And is this the right thing to do? Those little boys that pushed Maggie’s kid around apologized, and then hopped in the minivan and rode home. Perhaps mom and dad had a chat with them as they drove. Explained how what they did not very nice. But did they learn anything? Is knowing they might figure it out someday comforting? Or will they grow up thinking that an apology is nothing but appeasing . . . well, you get the point.

And, more importantly, are you ok with that?

13 thoughts on “Faking It

  1. Maggie, dammit June 12, 2008 — 8:44 pm

    I don’t think kids have the ability to comprehend precisely what it is they’re apologizing for, or why. That’s not to say it’s wrong, though. It’s kind of the “fake it til you make it” philosophy, right?

    Also, what is the alternative? Not having them apologize at all? What does that teach them?

    It’s weird, because I often overcompensate as a parent, go out of my way to show my kids the myriad ways their behavior is offensive. And yet, when the roles are reversed and it’s another parent and their kids, I’m almost never offended by the behavior. I almost always see the parents’ reaction as an overreaction.

    Still, though, I feel like I have to force these things into my kids’ heads. That there are some things we do and some things we don’t, and when you’re in the wrong you owe an apology. Doesn’t matter if you feel/understand it or not. It’s owed.

  2. Kimbrough would agree. After his remark about the foolishness of holding out for sincerity in the short term, he writes:

    “If you have any doubts about that, consider the mother who told me that she does not make her son apologize unless he means it. I think it’s fair to anticipate that he will not learn to mean it on his own whenever proper manners dictate. Nor will he learn the importance of faking it when necessary, as remains indispensable well into adulthood.”

    I wonder . . . what would have the reaction been if the parents had chatted the boys up at length right there, showed them the tears in your daughters eyes, the marks on her neck, and told them that their actions were harmful emotionally (“Look! You made her cry!” ) and physically (“You hurt her! Do you like it when people hurt you?”).

    As you say, you probably would have felt that they went too far. But if we’re to teach our kids to mean it when they say they are sorry, isn’t something like this required? Can this be done without embarrassing the kids or humiliating them? And would it even “work”?

    Or am I still too much of an idealist . . .

  3. For the sake of full confession, I will say that I try to do this with my kids. And yes, other parents have given me that look that says “Dude, lighten up!” But if the bottom line isn’t exposed, then it’ll get lost.

    I guess time will tell if it’s working . . .

  4. Reading your article, then going back and reading the story from Maggie, I couldn’t help think that at least in this case, the message was, fake it, say your sorry, we can leave and you can go back to your path as psychopaths.

    Kids don’t just decide one day to beat the crap out of some strange girl. They learn, through trial and error that there are no consequences other than saying your sorry to beating the crap out of another. Its the “my kid can’t do anything wrong” syndrome that so many parents seem to have. My guess is that the mother is more horrified that she had to leave with her bratty kids than she was about what they had done.

  5. I worked as a supervisor in a daycare for children from 6 months to five years old and one of the policies we had was that we did NOT make children apologize, especially if they didn’t mean it. That doesn’t mean we didn’t stop the behavior, explain why it was wrong and make sure the child understood that he had hurt the other child but insincere apologies are worse than no apology at all. The two year old who yanks out a handful of another child’s hair is not sorry! They don’t even understand that it hurts the other child yet. The four year old who hits another child with a stick will apologize as fast as he can and then expect no other consequences so long as “I’m sorry” comes out of his mouth. I agree with you 100 % here and more parents should read and understand,as well as more child care facilities.

  6. I cringe every time I make one of my boys say sorry..I know that they aren’t and they don’t even try to make it sound sincere. It’s more or less something we do so that they get into the habit of it and also so that they know why we’re mad. It’s hard to know what morals or lessons actually stick. How do you teach something like compassion, except by example?

  7. This is a really tough one, but I think, if nothing else, sometimes we need to demonstrate that certain things are not appropriate, whether they feel good to you or not. Perhaps apologies that aren’t felt are not the answer, but after a scenario like Maggie painted, something needs to happen.

  8. I guess I’m old-fashioned this way in that I feel that parents today have let go of a lot of what we learned as kids ourselves in the spirit of, they’re too young to get it, or whatever other excuse parents make for not applying common-sense discipline. It will crush their spirit, for example.

    Humility is what I think what a child learns at an early age when they apologize. Not humiliation. Humiliation is when a parent berates that kid in front of the whole crowd, but simply insisting on an apology? Not even close.

  9. ybonesy makes an interesting distinction here.

    Humility is defined as “the quality or condition of being humble.” And the most appropriate definition of humble, for the sake of this discussion, is “showing deferential or submissive respect.” Relating all this to the situation described in Maggie’s story, the boys were being taught a lesson in humility – that there are times when we must respect or defer to another to bring an end to a hurtful situation.

    But again, I wonder if those boys were capable of displaying true humility. If humility is simply an action – “Say you’re sorry.” – then perhaps. But if there is an element of awareness and understanding that is required for an act to be a truly humble one, then I doubt it.

    Humiliation, on the other hand, seems to be something heaped on us by others, following the definition of humiliating: “to lower the pride, dignity, or self-respect of.”

    In other words, one can choose to show humility, or choose to be humble, but to be made to be either one is an act of humiliation.

    For example, as adults, when we do something stupid or harmful, and the circumstances immediately make us feel humiliated (uncomfortable stares or critical comments from others in response to our actions), we can choose to be humble an apologize. In essence, once we are humiliated, we can then show humility and apologize. Humiliation must come first.

    By making the boys apologize, they were humiliated. In apologizing, they (perhaps) learned to be humble.

    But I wonder . . . *must* the two always go together?

    Interesting discussion . . .

  10. Or maybe I’m taking the definition of humiliation too far . . .

  11. I guess I would ask, were they *really* humilitated? I read Maggie’s post, and her daughter was choked by the boys who then had to give an apology. I think the apology was more than warranted.

    But you know, as a parent, it’s a valuable to ask oneself about humiliation and humility.

  12. Indeed, ybonesy. An apology was necessary. But I wonder if it would have meant more had the parents also apologized. Not “for” the boys, but “in addition” the their forced display of humbleness.

    Maybe that’s a possible solution. If the boys see what true humility looks like, then maybe sincerity will come easier one day.

    Very interesting discussion everyone . . .

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