Sunday, September 03, 2006

Being rich means never having to say you're sorry

Apologizing is a skill that way too many people have failed to learn. A recent series of columns by John Kass in the Chicago Tribune provide an illustration of why people don't learn this lesson. I think it's because parents, in too many cases, don't teach their children how.

For those of you who aren't able to follow the links to the columns, here's the story: A long-time resident of Chicago's North Side was tending her garden when three boys from a wealthy suburb shot her in the face, arm and leg with a pellet gun. The three boys were working as summer painters for the nearby hospital where one boys' mother is a senior vice president. They shot 15 pellets into the woman's yard and fled when her son ran into the building to stop them. The police came and said the boys would be charged with aggravated battery. But the charges were lowered because they (and, I assume, their wealthy parents) convinced the police and prosecutors that it was all a mistake. A harmless prank by boys who "didn't know" they were shooting at someone. The boys were sentenced by a teen "jury" to 25 hours of community service. The woman is so traumatized that she can't bear to be in her garden alone anymore.

But the worst thing in all this isn't that the boys didn't get charged as they should have. (And try to forget the fact that if it was three African-American boys from the South Side, they'd be charged with the highest charge possible and probably tried as adults). The worst thing is that those boys have not apologized. Not once. And neither have their parents. Let's assume that it was a mistake. Assume the boys didn't see her in the garden and didn't know they were shooting at a person. If that's what happened, don't they owe it to her to say they're sorry they made that mistake?

I'm not suggesting that the boys' lives should be damaged by a felony conviction, maybe pleading down to a misdemeanor was the right thing to do. But ONLY if they apologized and made restitution to their victim. Otherwise, they haven't learned the lesson that you have to take responsibility for your actions and their consequences. Children who don't learn that lesson grow up to be adults who behave with impunity, without regard to how their actions affect others.

My parents never taught me to apologize. I rarely heard them apologize. And when they did it was along the lines of "I'm sorry if you think I did something wrong." Which doesn't count. If they never apologized, you can bet they never made us apologize. I certainly don't recall it happening. No one ever had to take responsibility for their actions. Things "just happened." Everything that went wrong was "an accident." I can't tell you how many times I heard my mother say "Oh, he didn't mean it," when one of my brothers did something totally obnoxious. And even when it was painfully obvious that he did, in fact, mean every bit of it.

If you can never admit you're wrong, you are going to have difficulty apologizing. That's the real issue in my family and one of the reasons that I'm estranged from my father (a long story for another day). He's incapable of admitting he was wrong. Incapable of apologizing. He felt entitled and he behaved that way. If he did something wrong - well, that was just the way it was, why should he have to apologize? If it hurt other people, it was their fault for being so sensitive. Because of that attitude, he's lost a relationship with me, my husband and our two beautiful daughters. And it truly is his loss.

Living where we live and sending our kids to a private school, we have many opportunities to see this kind of behavior in action. The other night we were at a school function, speaking to one of the teachers. We were in the middle of a conversation when another couple walked up and started talking to the teacher. Not once did they look at us and say "Sorry to interrupt." I know that's a small thing in the scheme of it all. But it's an example of people who feel entitled to do what they want, when they want to, despite it's impact on others.

Of course, because the parents don't know how to apologize (and rarely think it's necessary), the kids don't ever learn that skill. I can count on one hand the times I've seen parents make their children actually apologize for hurting another child. Most of the time the parents will half-heartedly tell their child to apologize, the kid doesn't do it and the parents don't do anything about it. What has the kid learned? That there are no adverse consequences to hurting someone else. That you don't have to take responsibility for your actions.

I'm not saying that all rich people are insensitive assholes and that those less monetarily fortunate are saints. I'm just saying that the sense of entitlement that wealthier people tend to have reinforces this kind of bad behavior.

I learned how to apologize from my husband. Among his favorite phrases is: "It's not the mistake; it's how you handle it that counts." Whether you meant to cause harm isn't the point - if you've done something wrong, own up to it, apologize, and fix it if you can. He has taught that to the girls pretty much from the day they could talk. I'll admit, it was hard for me at first. It's still hard sometimes (especially when I have PMS). I'm still learning to get over the urge to make excuses for my behavior. But I want to be a good role model to the kids and a kind spouse, so I'll keep working on it because love means learning to say "I'm sorry."


Andrew said...

My wife and I usually find that as soon as one of us says "sorry", the tension drains out of everything and life can move forward. And we're not rich so we're good at it :o)

To Love, Honor and Dismay

landismom said...

Good post. And timely, with school just days away. We're having a lot of apologies around here, as the vacation brain begins its final meltdown.

DDK23 said...

I can totally relate to this post. Especially the "I'm sorry if you think I did something wrong." apology.
The other thing I can't stand, is not accepting the apology. When I make the effort to apologize, don't ignore me. Either except it or don't. But generally people don't even know how to accept an apology. I guess people think they are being nice by just "moving on" and ignoring you even had said something.....but I put myself out there and it's still hanging there, all I want is "thank you", "its ok", "allright", "OK"...but you don't hear that often either (at least not me).
OK...I have probably ranted enough...just wondering the blogosphere and happend upon this excellent post:-)

Jessica said...

Andrew - That's what my husband says all the time. You can't start the healing process until the tension is gone which usually happens with an apology.

Landismom - Yeah, that's what's happening in our house too! That last week before school is tough on everyone!

DDK23 - Thanks for stopping by! I agree, if you've given a good apology (not the kind favored by my parents) then the other person should respond. Maybe they can't accept the apology but they should be big enough to say that - "I'm still too angry to accept your apology right now." Or something like that.

Kristen said...

I have so much trouble apologizing, and I recognize how important it is. Because it's hard for me and an area of weakness, I've been VERY focused on it with my kids. From day one. They knew the word "apologize" before they knew what a Power Ranger was. Hey, maybe I'm doing something right after all!