I struggle with whether or not to extract apologies from Sophia when she does something hurtful or naughty that has an impact on another person. Certainly, I want her to experience remorse and to express regret when she wounds another. At the same time, I know she isn’t quite developmentally there yet. She’s still moored in a very egocentric view of the world. She isn’t sorry, and making her say she is doesn’t make it so. Her prompted apologies sound hollow and false. They aren’t satisfying to me or to her victims.
Of course, I still do it. There is a part of me that hopes, simply by sheer modeling and repetition, she will come to understand that the right thing to do when you have erred is to apologize. If I teach it, she will learn. (Even if she never develops a conscience, perhaps she’ll be a polite psychopath.) But the real reason I stand over her and make her say the words, “I’m sorry,” is because I know other parents expect me to.
At this stage, direct, immediate consequences for aggressive behavior seems to me to be the only thing that evoke true feelings of regret. For example, the other night we were at the library for a family music event. Throughout the first half of the show, Sophie was blissful, turning back to look at me and share her enjoyment after each song. Eventually she warmed up, rose from her seat, and broke into a completely unselfconscious, hopping dance, her silver mardi gras beads swaying with every movement. When she went to sit back down, a slightly older girl spread herself across two seats, and told Sophie, “No. I’m sitting here.” Forbidding Sophia only made her want it more, and so she tried to force herself upon the girl. “Go sit somewhere else, Sophia,” I warned. But Sophie was already on edge. I could feel her mood had changed. After one last provocation, Sophie moved to another seat. The singer announced to the group that after another song, everyone could have pizza.
“Can I have pizza, Mama?” Sophie asked, eyebrows raised in hope.
“No, Soph. We’re going home to have dinner with daddy. He’s coming home tonight!” Kevin had been in DC on business and we hadn’t seen him in three days.
“I want PIZZA!” Sophia whined.
“We’re not having pizza.” I said definitively
And then she did the unthinkable. She turned around and popped a toddler in the stomach.
The punch was fairly low energy and the toddler looked unphased, but I was livid. “Oh we are so out of here.” And I plucked Sophia up from the ground and forcibly carried her out. I imagine I may have left a parent in my wake, awaiting an apology for her two-year old son, who had already forgotten the incident. But I knew it was far more effective to punish Sophie by removing her from the event than to stay and say, “I’m sorry.”
“You are NOT allowed to hit people. If you are angry, you tell me ‘I’m ANGRY! You don’t hurt others. And you never NEVER lay a hand on a younger child.” I was pissed. I kept going, “That is NOT the way we handle problems. Have you ever seen me or daddy hit another person? NO. We might yell. But we DON”T HIT PEOPLE.”
“Can I listen to my music?”
The next evening, Sophie and I were out at Wegmans, having pizza. I am often loathe to take Sophia out to dinner because she cannot sit still. She is so highly distracted by everything going on, so overstimulated that it’s almost impossible to eat. I have three restaurant rules that I try to practice with her on brief outings in places where she won’t cause a disturbance or fatally trip a waitperson:
1. Sit in your seat.
2. Keep a low voice.
3. Eat your food.
Doesn’t seem like too much to ask, but for Sophia, it’s a Herculean task. I have tried everything. Social reinforcement (Good! You’ve been sitting in your seat for one second!), guided imagery (Imagine that a snake has wrapped each one of your limbs to the chair and you can’t move.), threats, (If you get up from your seat one more time, I’m going to put you in a high chair), and tangible rewards (Follow your rules and we’ll have mini-ice cream cones when we get home). Nothing has worked, because much like her inability to experience remorse, she has not yet developed the internal controls to sit still in exciting environments. Still, I rehearse the skill with the hope that one day, she’ll get it without needing me on top of her.
This was not to be the day. The dining area in Wegmans is on the second floor, looking over the prepared foods section. Sophie was trying to scale the iron railing that was the only thing preventing her from falling 20 feet into the hot soup. I repeatedly ask her to sit down.
“What if I dropped my shoe down there mommy?” She asked, while I tried to shove a few bites into my mouth.
“Well, for one, you might hurt someone with it.” This possibility seemed to delight her. “Or it might fall into the soups and you’d have no more shoes.” She laughed at this, got out of her seat, and ran over to hug me, one of her ploys to avoid eating. I was already on my second slice, and she hadn’t even had her second bite. “I love you Sophia, but I don’t love your behavior. Please sit down and take a bite.” She turned around and hopped over the cracks from tile to tile until she reached a row of fake plants. She gave one a tug. “Sophia! Come here and take a bite!” This time I held up the pizza to her mouth. She took a big bite, bigger than I expected, and bit my pointer finger with it.
“YOW!” I screamed in pain. When someone bites down with the intent of severing a mouthful of pizza from the rest of the slice, she bites hard. I felt the full force of her little jaw close onto my nail and the tender pad of my fingertip. I sat back down, holding onto my finger, waiting for my brain to release some goddamn endorphins.
Sophie looked stricken. “Mama, are you okay?”
“I’ll be okay, Sophia. I know it was an accident, but you bit me really hard. It hurts.” She ran up to me and kissed me on the hand.
“Don’t worry, Soph. I’ll be fine. It was an accident.” I repeated. Within a minute or so, my body worked a chemical miracle and the pain drifted away. Sophie and I resumed our struggle. Two thousand prompts later, she had finished a slice.
“Okay. It doesn’t look like we’re having dessert tonight. You didn’t follow your rules.”
“But I still get a book, right?”
“Yes,” I sighed, “you still get a book. I’m not taking anything away from you. You just aren’t getting anything extra-good tonight. Maybe next time.”
The next morning, Sophie woke me and then disappeared back in her room to don her princess gown. On my way to the shower, I leaned my head into the room and said, “you can wear the gown until I get out. But when I’m out of the shower you need to get dressed.”
“Okay, Mommy.” Sophie replied, adjusting her crown.
I climbed into the shower, mentally rehearsing what I had to do that day, the hot water coaxing me into consciousness, when Sophia drew back the curtain part-way.
She was completely dressed. Not as a princess. In clothes.
“Look Mommy, I’m completely dressed. Before you even got out of the shower.”
“Oh Sophie! That’s fantastic. I’m so proud of you. You put your tights on by yourself and everything.” I was in shock. This was a first.
Then it happened. Unprompted and real.
“And Mommy. I’m sorry I was naughty last night.”
Sophia, apology accepted.