Apologies can be powerful, and research has shown that a meaningful apology can help deescalate conflict, build or rebuild trust, and improve relationships. Children are taught at an early age that to apologize is powerful. They are also taught the power of acknowledgment, which is what an apology really is.
What Apologies Are and Are Not
An apology happens because someone acknowledges they have done something wrong, and the another acknowledges that person who has stepped forward to right the wrong they have committed. At least, this is what an apology is supposed to be about. However, since becoming a parent, I realized something different was occurring with apologies. Instead of acknowledging someone has done something wrong, I repeatedly heard “it’s ok” in response to an apology. This isn’t an acknowledgement, but seemingly a dismissal of what was done.
Someone says, “I’m sorry”, and “It’s ok” is now the appropriate and expected response. We have all heard children, teens, and adults interact using this exchange, and likely, we have found ourselves on either side of this exchange. It has become the normal way apologies happen in the world. And somehow growing up, maybe from parents or a teacher, we have learned to expect to hear it’s ok when we apologize or to say “It’s ok” when someone apologizes to us. But there is a problem with this; it is not ok.
If something has been done that warrants an apology, even if the person apologizing does not view it as serious, then it is not ok. So why have we become a society that believes, teaches, or embraces that the appropriate response to an apology is ok? The truth is it is never ok, and it should always be “Thank you.”
Why “It’s Ok” Is Not Ok
When “it’s ok” is the response to an apology, what happens is not acknowledging the apology but unintentional confirmation that what was done is now deemed ok. If someone makes a negative comment to someone else or a child hits a sibling or friend and is told “it’s ok,” what they could be hearing is not that the apology is ok, but the action is. This does not teach children the power of an apology but affirms harmful behavior is somehow ok. And I get it we want children to get along, we want our children to have and keep friends, but we should never want it at the expense of them somehow believing a harmful action is ok.By using “It’s ok” as the response to an apology, we are teaching children, at a young age, that whatever happened to them is ok. And if an apology is needed, then whatever happened is not ok. Teaching our children to tell another that something that hurt them emotionally, spiritually, or physically is ok, removes their right to determine what is hurtful for them.
While we as parents are called to help them learn what is right and wrong, they need to be given time and skills to determine what for them is ok. Not every child is hurt by words, but some are. Every child has an emotional tolerance level, just like adults, and they are the only ones who have the right to determine what harms that level for themselves. And if every apology ends with “It’s ok,” they might not be able to learn that for themselves.
Why “Thank You” is the Appropriate Response
However, when “thank you” is the response to an apology, the conversation becomes more personal because someone recognizes the effort that the person took to come forward, admitted they were wrong, and offered an apology. Instead of “It’s ok”, “Thank you” acknowledges that someone has tried to right a wrong they have done, and they are being thanked for the effort. When a child says to another thank you for apologizing, is respect, trust, and real friendships build and mend.
At the same time, saying thank you to an apology does not mean the apology must be accepted. Each person, even children, deserves the right to determine if, and when, they are ready to accept an apology. Would we love it if all children accepted apologies from their siblings and friends immediately? Yes! Because honestly it makes our lives a little easier, but children deserve the right to process an apology just like every adult does. That process takes time and is rarely an instant occurrence. Can children bounce back quickly? Yes, they can, but we cannot and should not force them too. And that is what saying “It’s ok” does. If is forcing acceptance before acceptance might be appropriate.
We practice this in our own home. Our son is eight, and he knows to expect a thank you from his dad or I when he apologizes. Similarly, he knows to say thank you in return when we apologize to him. He also knows that thank you is more personal and to conversations instead of an immediate idea that we have to move on. We have also experienced times when he has told us he is not ready to accept our apology after he says thank you to it. He knows this is ok and safe for him to do. He knows he can take time and process his feelings and thoughts and can return to us when he is ready.
I have seen the change in this, not just with our son but also in our marriage. We say thank you now to apologies, and we follow it up with a discussion when we are both ready. Following this path has made us stronger and happier together and isn’t that what we want for our children? For them to be stronger and happier, with themselves and in their relationships.