I have negotiated a lot of elementary school conflicts. In most cases, just placing two friends across from each other and having them look at each other’s faces resulted in reconciliation, often accompanied by tears of regret and hugs of relief. But sometimes it didn’t go that way, and I had to decide what lesson to teach.
Once, two formerly-close third grade girls were in conflict, and I suspected that Cassie was being a bully. So when we sat down together, I asked her, “Do you value your relationship with Jen enough to want to fix this?” Cassie matter-of-factly and coldly replied, “No, I don’t care. I never really liked her that much to begin with.” Jen’s eyes widened in shock, then filled with tears, and as the tears threatened to spill over, Cassie stared at her nonchalantly.
“Thank you for your honest answer," I told Cassie. And I turned my attention fully to Jen. “I know that was really hard to hear. I’m going to help you find some friends who care about your feelings.” At lunch, I chose a few nice students from the class. “Jen could really use some friends today," I told them, "would you invite her to sit with you?” They welcomed her, and new bonds started forming.
Some people would say I should have counseled Cassie; made sure she understood the power of her words and the hurt she caused, and required an apology. I disagree.
Cassie already knew how hurtful her words were and I didn’t want to give them any more power. Even after seeing Jen’s tears, she did not soften. I didn’t demean Cassie; I modeled appropriate limit-setting for both girls. I don’t know if Cassie learned to be nicer to her friends from this experience (stories from her high school classmates indicate she did not), but she did stop targeting Jen. And Jen stopped falling for her.
No child (or adult, for that matter) should be forced to reconcile with, or pretend to forgive, someone who is mistreating her without remorse. And parents and teachers do neither child any favors by structuring insincere apologies.
I hope Jen will be able to draw upon the memory of a teacher who made clear that she didn’t deserve to be abused, and that she will continue to choose friends who treat her with kindness and respect. That was the most important lesson to be learned that day.
Coming soon- The 5 Components of a Sincere Apology