Toothpaste, Genies and Apologies: We Need to Worry about our Children

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We know you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube — not matter how hard you try. And genies don’t go back into the bottle. And, importantly in today’s politically chaotic and tragic time, “apologies” (more on that in a moment) do not erase bad acts.

As an educator, I appreciate apologies and I think they are critical in terms of helping students grow when their behavior is outside acceptable norms. Apologizing is not easy; it requires that one accept one’s errors and own them. But, make no mistake about this: apologies do not server as erasers. They do not eliminate what was done. We can debate failure and forgiveness (the title of one of my early books actually) but that is not the same as the discussion of apologies.

As a lawyer and former law professor, I also know that apologies for criminal acts do not erase the acts themselves; apologies may affect punishment but you cannot get away with murder or robbery or sexual assault by saying the equivalent of “Oops. I did not want that outcome. I don’t believe in murder and robbery and assaults. I believe in law and order and don’t like what happened.”

I was deeply troubled by our current President’s video trying to step back from all the harm he caused that led directly or indirectly (depending on one’s interpretation) to destruction of the Capitol and deaths of civilians and a law enforcement officer. Saying on a video that one supports healing and a peaceful transition, in a voice and body language that belie the words spoken, does not erase what occurred on January 6, 2021.

Stated most simply, an “apology” video does not erase what happened at the People’s House. It is too little, too late. As the title of this piece hints and early paragraph notes, toothpaste does not go back into the tube and genies don’t go back into bottles. Apologies (assuming they are real and heartfelt and genuine) do not take away the damage done. And apologies that do not own one’s role in calamities are weaker than weak. They accomplish little; they may even make things worse.

Calling something an apology is already something that presumes truth and ownership of one’s deed. I suspect that our President did not meet the bar of a true apology, howsoever we define it. He never acknowledges his personal role in the mayhem that occurred on January 6, 2021. Indeed, after listening to the video yet again as I write this, it seems defensive. Deeply defensive. And it has falsehoods within it (at least it so appears since the facts are still to come).

Listen to the last two lines again though. The President is suggesting that he is going forward with his supporters; he is not ending his push for his agenda. He is not stopping. That doesn’t seem apologetic to me.

We need to pay attention to what has occurred and is occurring in our nation. We need to do this for many reasons, not the least of which is our children. They are living in a time of history that stains our nation and will appear in history books to come. Our children need to understand owning behavior. They need role modeling from parents and guardians; they need role modeling from our leaders at every level, including the President of the United States. (Yes, he still is our President; he won last go-around.) Children need to know how to distinguish truth from lies and that isn’t always easy.

Let’s focus for at least a moment on how we can heal our children, how we can help them move forward. We know bad acts do not disappear. Children need to recognize that too. We need to enable children to process bad acts and see how bad behavior — by anyone — is unacceptable. We need for children to see how we value truth; we need to recognize lies and the damage they can do. We need for children to express their feelings, sharing how they see these events. We need honesty and transparency. We need to be role models to our children — for their sake and for the sake of our nation and our hope in its proud future. In short, parents can apologize.

Watch for a future piece on how parents and educators and community leaders can help our students — concrete strategies that can be used including about apologies. In the meanwhile, we can do lots if we are honest, telling the truth and owning our own acts.

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