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Apologies Are Like Toothbrushes: Teaching Your Children to Apologize

Apologies Are Like Toothbrushes: Teaching Your Children to Apologize

“But I said I was sorry!”

I’m fairly sure that, like me, you’ve heard that refrain in your home many times before. How does one explain that saying something and meaning something can be two totally different things? And then, throw in conveying the intended meaning and it all becomes pretty tricky.


Nowadays, I tend to respond with a raised eyebrow and the question, “Was that an electric toothbrush apology?”

This crazy analogy began once when I tried, in great frustration, to explain myself to my husband. I wanted an apology that I could trust and hold. Not the throwaway variety that one needs to dive-tackle just to receive it!

“It’s like a toothbrush…” I began.

You can clean your teeth with just about any old stick or twig, right? If you say it’s a toothbrush, then, by all means, it’s a toothbrush.  But, it’s probably not too good at the job it does.  In fact, it’s probably not really much of a toothbrush at all.  And your teeth may just feel worse off what with the pieces of bark and grimy bits sticking to your gums.

That’s kind of like the mumbled “sorry” given begrudgingly.  It sounds like an apology, but it’s not really any good.  Just like a toothbrush needs to be effective for its purpose (to clean one’s teeth) so does an apology (to restore relationships).

unhappy child

A better method to clean your teeth is to use a manual toothbrush with toothpaste! It does a good job of cleaning your teeth and usually leaves your mouth feeling fresh and minty. That’s like a good, heartfelt, “I’m really sorry. Please forgive me!” They’re the right words, and it’s hard not to receive them exactly the way they were intended.

But is it the best?  Anyone who has had the opportunity of test-driving an electric toothbrush knows that her teeth have never felt cleaner. (Okay, except after a visit to the oral hygienist, but the third party factor and the pain involved disqualifies its usefulness in my little analogy!)

I like electric toothbrush apologies.   Those are the kind where the person who was wronged walks away feeling complete relationship restoration.  For me, it involves these important ingredients:

  1. eye contact
  2. positive body language
  3. a truly repentant tone
  4. an explanation for what one is apologising about and why an apology is necessary
  5. a request for forgiveness

child and dad blowing dandelions

In other words: Look me in the eye, tell me you’re sorry for doing xyz because you know it was wrong for xyz reasons, ask for forgiveness, and then (for the more tactile amongst us), hold me tight!

Some days, my kids are happy to give and receive the quick, “I’m sorry!”  The offense was mild and things are pretty clean anyway. No need for much more than a “quick stick” sorry. Other days the offense is deep and restoration involves a fair bit of rigorous work. And that’s when the heartfelt electric toothbrush apology is the best tool.

After all, a thorough electric toothbrush job leaves one’s teeth feeling smooth, clean, and fresh.  And a decent heartfelt apology leaves no doubt of the sincerity of the person speaking.  In fact, the receiver will be hard pressed not to walk away from that exchange feeling lighter and cleaner herself.  It’s the kind of apology guaranteed to restore relationships and deepen love too.

So, the next time your kids say, “I said sorry!” in a petulant tone, maybe it’ll be a good time to bring out that electric toothbrush!


We’d love to hear your stories too! – How do you explain the importance of heartfelt apologies to your kids?

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  1. This is a great analogy! And sometimes that deeper cleaning of an oral hygienist is necessary, which is where the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation comes in. There’s the third party (the priest) and a little bit of pain involved ( telling him your sins). The priest acts as a representative of Christ AND of the church, so when you sin and fracture your vertical relationship (you and God) as well as your horizontal relationship (you’ve injured the body of Christ), it can be set right again by a trip to confession. Renewed soul – even better than clean teeth!

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