You Don’t Need to Say Sorry

France is sort of infamous for its playground “free for alls.” While I’ve yet to see any serious brawls at local play areas, French parents (and nannies and au pairs and older siblings) do tend to allow a little things to work themselves out a little more, or for a little longer, than you might see at an American playground. This is one of the many differences Pamela Druckerman wrote about extensively in her book French Children Don’t Throw Food, which I’ve blogged about before.

While I’ve got children underfoot, I’ve got climate change on the brain. On the playground, I tell M (the 4 year old) to cut it out, to play nice, to do whatever she’s doing doucement, gently, a great playground word because it can be drawn out into three emphatic syllables (dou-ce-ment). But I’ve stopped telling her (most of the time) to say she’s sorry. Sorry isn’t really a solution, is it?

The U.N. climate change conference currently going on in Warsaw, Poland is nearing its end, and based on the reportage I’ve read, it seems to be slow going. There’s a lot of discussion, of course, but I have the sense that there aren’t many conclusions coming out of this one.

But maybe the typhoon in the Philippines is changing that.

“Following a devastating typhoon that killed thousands in the Philippines, a routine international climate change conference here turned into an emotional forum, with developing countries demanding compensation from the worst polluting countries for damage they say they are already suffering.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/world/growing-clamor-about-inequities-of-climate-crisis.html?hpw&rref=world)

Between the two kids I take care of, the 4 year old is often, unwittingly, the bully or the instigator or the perpetrator of the most major crimes. She pushes him, she knocks him over, she throws things at him, she makes him try using a slide in such a way that he lands on his head. All this sounds like abominable behavior, except it’s totally normal: she’s pushing him as she runs behind him through the house in a game of tag, she knocks him over because she doesn’t realize how unstable his 2-year-old center of balance is, she’s throwing things at him that she doesn’t understand he can’t catch, she knows how to go down the slide on her back so she thinks he does too. 

Sometimes kids do things intentionally mean and sometimes (often) they don’t understand how they’re being hurtful. Whatever. Part of the job of child-minding, be you parent or nanny or shang-hai’d older sibling, is to instill some sense of culpability in these young minds. Probably the number one way to do this is to force an apology. Say you’re sorry!

In climate change conversations, people are constantly bickering about who caused it, whose fault it is. I think we can agree that climate change is most definitely anthropogenic. But which people? Who is really responsible, here? We like to say “I’m sorry” by buying reusable grocery bags and maybe even swinging for energy offsets when we have to fly places. At climate talks, since they’re political, some of the conversation is inevitably going to be about which nations need to take on more of the burden of paying for the technology that will hopefully avert some of the problems caused by climate change, or may help us deal with them.

More important, though, than saying sorry, is understanding the situation and figuring out genuine solutions. While I have plenty of reasons to demand that the 4 year old says she’s sorry, I prefer to give her some insight into her brother’s despair (“he knocked the blocks down because that’s the way he knows how to play with you, he’s crying because he didn’t mean to do something mean”) and ask her to come up with a solution. “Show him how to play nicely with you,” I’ll say, instead of “SAY YOU’RE SORRY.” 

With the effects of climate change bound to start kicking in within the next decade (or, let’s be real: now), we need to be less concerned about who is responsible and more concerned about what we’re going to do about it. Smaller and less-developed nations are almost inevitably going to be more harshly affected, and sooner than larger, more-developed nations. Figuring out how to cope with the inequality between nations and regions is the task of the moment. 

“Sorry” is fine. But we need to do far more than apologize.

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