Not pardoning – understanding one another

By Mariana Kretschmer, February 2018

Leonard has torn off the headscarf off a fellow pupil. It gave her a shock because wearing a headscarf is important to her and she does not want to show her hair openly. Leonard had just had an argument with his teacher.

Photo: © anune /

The teacher observed what he was doing and gave him a telling off. It ends with her demanding that he should apologise to the pupil immediately. He refuses to do so. His parents are requested to come to the school and are asked to ensure that Leonard apologises. Every day the teacher asks the girl whether Leonard has apologised; she says he hasn’t and the teacher again writes to the parents. The parents tell Leonard that he must apologise. But Leonard insists that first the teacher has to apologise to him because she had made him angry. When the teacher tells the parents that they should consult a child psychiatrist, they finally wake up.

What is actually happening here? What price does a person have to pay who resists the well-worn ritual of making an apology? “Begging for pardon” arises from an age-old authoritarian way of thinking, from a moral relic. When I subserviently beg the other person’s pardon (to free me from my debt), is everything fine again? This is about power, not about what actually happened.

Clarifying the situation in the sense understanding one another and addressing one another as equals is made impossible. The “guilty party” must be remorseful, only then is it morally correct to forgive them. And the person to whom the injustice was done may play the role of the generous and just party. Like on a seesaw, the “guilty party” sits down below and the “pardoning party” sits on high. The message is: feel bad because you have done bad things, you yourself are bad. A kick to self-confidence where it hurts.

Children know when something is wrong

A child at Leonard’s age knows when they have done something wrong. They need the opportunity to reflect on it. And understanding adults are needed to support them. Let us return to the situation with the girl. Leonard himself was angry and sad at that point since he was in trouble with his teacher. He could not help himself, the girl stood in his way and he passed on the pressure to the next available person.

He felt under attack and really needed protection and help, not the demand for an apology and to make himself even smaller than he felt already. His refusal is understandable and healthy. Here the teacher could have intervened and explained to the girl that Leonard’s anger was not directed at her but the result of the previous situation. That he was not a bad person but – understandable on a human level – upset.

Was the girl really annoyed or angry? Such an action by the teacher would have helped both children. Presumably after two or three such supported situations the children would themselves be in a position to say these things. But after innumerable “say sorry immediately” situations children have been trained to play the adult power games.

The person who accepts an apology may decide whether the apology was “good”, “proper” or “meant seriously”. This teaches children a pattern and, in the best case scenario, to tell a convincing lie. No one asks what they really think, whether they can understand the other and empathise with their anger.

Manipulation leads nowhere

So what can we do? Listen to the children. Let them speak and simply be listen quietly when they invite you into their “home”. We don’t always have to comment on everything. We don’t have to manipulate the child through punishment and praise.

And what happened to Leonard? His parents stopped demanding apologies. They asked him wholly non-judgementally how he was doing in school and everything else and he talked and talked. They showed him that they would stand by him despite all shortcomings, also in the face of the teacher’s announcement.

Three days later Leonard himself had the idea to paint a picture for the girl from the school. He gave it secretly to her when no one else was around. And she went to her teacher and proudly showed her the picture.

About the author: Mariana Kretschmer is a communication coach and nature teacher,