We’ve all been there. One of our kids has hurt a sibling in some fashion, either physically or emotionally. If we demand an apology, the offending child may comply with something like this: head hung low, scowl on face, and a barely audible “I’m sorry” with little or no eye contact. He then may dash away with a cloud of anger in his wake. Was this a true apology? Did it have any meaning at all?
We can make the exchange much more meaningful if we slow the process down and address each party with intention through the lens of the gospel?
What is repentance?
First we need to talk about what repentance really is. The word repentance implies the notion of “turning around.” If someone is truly repentant, they will demonstrate this with a change in behavior and attitude. They have turned from what they were doing and are now doing something different.
We see this process at conversion. A person admits his sins and helplessness to atone for them, seeks forgiveness and then becomes a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new”). It is the transformation that gives proof that the repentance was real and heart-felt. Without an outward demonstration of or desire for repentance (turning from sin), one may wonder about the reality of the conversion.
The same is true for our children. A true apology is accompanied by true repentance (a change of behavior and attitude) to have any meaning to the giver or the receiver. An “I’m sorry” said with disinterest is much different from an “I’m sorry” followed by a “Will you forgive me?”
Should we force “I’m sorry”?
We probably could make our children apologize, but that doesn’t mean we should. Forcing an apology may check it of our parental to-do list, but we may have missed an opportunity for discipleship. We can set the stage, teach the skills, address the underlying issues, but the real change is done inside the child’s heart and by the Holy Spirit. Instead of jumping in and having your child recite some meaningless words, it might be helpful to dig a bit deeper.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say one of your children intentionally hurts a sibling. You can intervene with a corrective measure. Then, at a time of calm, assess the state of his heart. Get curious and ask him what went wrong. Try to get to the root of the issue. What was he feeling and thinking? Was there something else going on for him that fueled his words or behavior?
If your child is sorry…
Next, ask if he feels any sorrow for what he did. If he claims that he does, discuss different ways that he could show his sibling that he is sorry. Explain that his outward attitude and behavior is a window into his heart. Sorry hearts want to make things right.
Some ideas for showing repentance include: serving the sibling lunch or a snack, playing a game of the sibling’s choosing, cleaning up after the sibling, doing a chore for the sibling, etc. The child can then approach the offended sibling and say something like, “I am sorry that I hurt you. I want to show you that I am sorry so I am going to read you your favorite story.”
If your child is NOT sorry…
On the other hand, if your child is unwilling to apologize or make amends, you can ask if they would like to pray about it or to take some time to be alone. This isn’t for the sake of punishment but for reflection. If your child is receptive, you can talk about how relationships can be damaged when we hurt someone. You can also explore any underlying causes of his lack of remorse. Does he have past hurts? Is something else bothering him about this relationship?
Give him some time to think and process his feelings. If he still chooses to not apologize, tell him that you will check in with him later to see if that will change. In the meantime, he will still have to make amends in a way that is in proportion to the offense. That could be any of the suggestions listed above or other ideas you come up with. Sometimes an act of service can have the power to soften a hardened heart.
Prepare the offended child
Don’t forget the forgiveness piece in all of this. Privately remind the offended child that he or she needs to be ready to forgive when approached with genuine repentance. We are to forgive “70 times 7” those who do wrong against us. Encourage him or her to see that God’s forgiveness is open to anyone – anyone who is willing to humbly confess his sins and believe He is Lord. If he or she has some hurts still there, pray with them and ask God to help them forgive.