On Accidents and Apologies

One of the biggest bones of contention in interactions between students in our school is apologizing, especially if someone does something by accident. Just Thursday at dismissal, a third grader was venting to me about a fight she had with a friend. Apparently it started when something got knocked off a desk, or something like that. “She said, ‘Are you going to apologize?’ and I said, ‘No, because it was an accident,'” the child told me.

“You can still apologize for an accident,” I told her. “In fact, a lot of the times you should. An apology just means you regret something, on purpose or not.”

Elementary students, at least at our school, have an idea that an apology is an admission of guilt. (And in some cultures, it is. But that’s congruent with the school culture we work towards.)

So I was actually impressed with this video that came up in my RSS feed reader. The little boy gets bopped, accidentally, in the face by Vice President Mike Pence. He politely persists in getting Mr. Pence to acknowledge the unintentional harm. And, when Mr. Pence does, he apologizes, adding an explanation (“I didn’t mean to bop you”) without minimizing the child’s concern.

This might be a good moment to share with students to demonstrate that:

  • asking for an apology is not the same as an accusation
  • giving an apology is not an admission of guilt
  • anyone might deserve an apology, or owe the apology to somebody else, regardless of other circumstances like status