It’s amazing how much learning can take place on a little trip to the park. It was a gorgeous day and my kids were having a blast at the playground. I sat on a bench on the outer ring of the play area taking in the beauty of my children immersed in play. My six-year-old was busy refining her climbing skills,her eager, calloused hands reaching urgently for the next rung. My five-year-old was pumping diligently on the swing set, her dimpled knees bending in perfect rhythm with the swing’s up’s and down’s. And my industrious three-year-old was hard at work making mud-rock pies in a plastic cup she had discovered... It was sheer joy watching them each do their own thing, enthralled in their own little worlds.

It was sheer joy watching them each do their own thing

I honed in on my three-year-old as a little boy about her age plunked himself down next to her in hopes of joining in on her riveting geological experiment. She acknowledged his presence with brief eye contact and continued pouring and patting. He reached for the cup in her hand. She pulled it away and grunted firmly, “Mine!” Frustrated and wounded by her rejection, the boy clenched his fist, leaned back, and belted my daughter right on the nose.

His mother was sitting next to me, and we both saw the scene go down. I ran to my daughter’s aid and rocked her in my arms. His mother casually approached him and said in a sing-songy, preschool teacher-esque voice, “No, no. We don’t hit. Say 'sorry.'”

Following his mother’s lead, the boy came close to my daughter and declared in a proud, almost confident voice, “Sorry!” He looked pleased with himself, and his mother congratulated him for being a “good boy,” for apologizing. She returned to the bench, and he went off to play.

As I sat in the sand cradling and calming my shocked and hurt little girl, I couldn’t help but think, “Sorry” just doesn’t cut it. I get that three-year-olds typically don’t have the emotional maturity or the verbal skills to communicate their feelings clearly. And I get that it’s natural for young kids to become frustrated and act on impulses. Believe me, I get it. But feeding a kid a line to repeat after he has purposely caused harm to another person is down right ineffective parenting.

Kids need to be taught to take responsibility for their actions. This does not come naturally to them. Our job as parents is to help guide and mold our little people into becoming caring and compassionate big people. We live in a world of action. It doesn’t only matter what you say. It matters what you do. Fundamentally, hitting is rarely right. So if a child acts on an impulse and hits someone else in a non-threatening and unprovoked situation, the consequence for that behavior must to be more than lip service.

Kids need to be taught to take responsibility for their actions

What I expect to see from my kids when they have caused harm to another child (intentionally or not) is a sense of regret and a sense of concern for the kid who just got whacked. Saying “Sorry” is meaningless unless it is accompanied by a feeling of remorse and an offer to help. “Sorry” is just a word. It doesn’t heal and it doesn’t repair. But offering a helping hand to help someone we’ve accidentally hurt and showing a genuine desire to make amends can help mend the hurt... or at least set the stage for it.

This idea is beautifully illustrated in this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash. When Joseph was young, his brothers threw him into a pit and left him there to die. Big “no-no.” Joseph decides after 22 years post-pit that he is going to reveal himself to his brothers as the healthy and thriving vice-Pharaoh he has become. Joseph sets his siblings up in virtual re-enactment of their previous situation, and waits to see what they will do. Joseph's brothers recognize the parallel between their current situation and their former. This time, they will not leave their younger brother to die. When Joseph sees their remorse and their resolve to behave differently, he reveals himself to them and forgives them.

Forgiveness is not a simple thing… at any age. Joseph was evolved, mature, and humble. He recognized the Divine Providence inherent in every aspect of his life’s story. One would be hard pressed to find these traits in any three-year-old. I don’t expect for a minute that had the little boy in the park felt bad about what he did, sincerely asked my daughter for forgiveness, and invited her to play, that she would have accepted. She wouldn’t have been ready yet… she was still hurting. But the point here is to teach our children to do the right thing regardless of the outcome. It doesn’t matter if my daughter forgives him or not. It matters that he tried.

During certain days or phases, our children will misbehave more often than not. That’s part of testing boundaries, gaining independence, and growing. I can’t control their behavior or their feelings. “Sorry” is just a word. It doesn’t heal and it doesn’t repair But I can let my kids know what my expectations are and guide them towards a sense of natural consequence. I want them to feel distressed and concerned if they’ve hurt someone; I’m trying to raise compassionate people. I want them to understand that mistakes are okay as long as they take responsibility for them, even when it’s difficult and embarrassing. I want them to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that no matter what they’ve done or failed to do, they always have another chance to do the right thing.

My daughter’s nose healed just fine. But she did steer clear of that boy for the rest of the afternoon. When we returned home later that evening, my girls had a squabble at the dinner table. In the midst of their bickering, one of them accidentally spilled the pitcher of water all over the table, drowning her sister’s meal into a soggy mess. The injured party started to cry. The one responsible for the spill announced unprompted, “I made a mistake, and I’m going to clean it up.” I beamed in the kitchen. I handed her a rag, winked at her, and congratulated her for doing the right thing. It was so satisfying for me to see my kid take responsibility for her actions… Oh, how I love watching these little people grow.