I sat on the park bench and watched the familiar scene. A little boy hit his sister. The mother grabbed the boy’s hand and reprimanded him, “Tell Sarah (the sister) that you are sorry.”

“Sorry,” he quickly shouted and then ran off to play. I don’t think the “sorry” appeased his sister, but it did his mother. Given my own personal experience with my children, I can guarantee you that this incident was not the first, nor will it be the last. It will repeat itself over and over. So I ask you: what good is it for us to teach our children to “say you are sorry”?

A child does not have the emotional maturity to understand their act, let alone regret itThere is a commandment in the Torah to do teshuvah. The word teshuvah is commonly translated as “repentance,” but it also comes from the word “to return.” Rambam (Maimonides) explains that in order to do teshuvah for a sin committed, you must 1) regret (and deal with) what you have done wrong, 2) commit yourself to not repeat the act (complete teshuvah would be when you encounter yourself in the exact same situation and you refrain from committing the sin), and 3) verbally confess the wrongdoing committed.

A child does not have the emotional maturity to understand their act, let alone regret it. Most five-year-olds who smack their baby sibling know exactly what they are doing—they just might not understand the consequences of it—and as much as the baby cries, they don’t feel a single ounce of remorse. They also certainly cannot be trusted not to do the act again. When we tell them, “Say that you are sorry,” we are essentially teaching them that “sorry” doesn’t mean anything.

How many times have I, as an adult, mumbled the words “I’m sorry” without even really thinking about what I have done? At the moment of the apology, did I commit to not repeat the wrongdoing? If I could go back, would I do it again? What am I teaching my children, as their mother, when I say “I’m sorry” and then repeat the same act over and over again?

Obviously, the first step to doing teshuvah is to stop the act and abandon the wrongdoing. The child hits his sibling. We define the wrongdoing. “Mommy doesn’t allow you to hit Sarah.” We punish, calmly and without anger (I know that it’s difficult!), by taking away a privilege. “Because you hit, you can’t play with at your friend’s house today.” Or, “. . . we are not going to the park.” You offer an alternative. “If there is a problem, instead of hitting, you have to come to me and I will take care of it.” Hopefully, by constructively punishing, you get rid of the bad behavior. Then, when the child is older, when emotional maturity has set in, then we can teach our children what it means to be sorry and feel remorse. We of course start by doing so ourselves.

You arrived late to the meeting. Everyone waited for you to arrive before they began. “I’m sorry,” you say. You were a bit embarrassed, but did you really feel so bad that the next time there is a meeting you will leave earlier? Or will you make the same mistake? If so, then are you really sorry? We make the same mistakes over and over. Do we realize that by doing so, the person we are harming most is ourselves?

When a person starts living a Torah-observant life, he or she is called a baal teshuvah. A master at returning. How is this so? Chassidic teachings explain that nothing in the universe can exist without some nucleus of G‑dliness within it. Even sin or evil, therefore, has a spark of divinity that enables it to exist. When the righteous triumph over evil, they withdraw this spark of divinity, causing the evil to disintegrate into nothingness, and the spark returns to its origin.

We make the same mistakes over and over. Do we realize that by doing so, the person we are harming most is ourselves?When a person becomes more Torah observant, they are doing just that. They observe their actions, their thoughts and their speech more. This observation is a catalyst for thought and teshuvah. “Am I doing the same act over and over again? Can I eradicate this bad behavior, and return to the same situation and not repeat the act? By returning, am I able to withdraw sparks of holiness and return them to their Source? Am I really sorry?” If I am, then I can say it, verbally admit it. “I’m sorry.”

This “sorry,” this remorse, this example of regret, of teshuvah, will penetrate into the hearts of our children and teach them that “sorry” is not merely a word.