For my young son, sorry really is the hardest word

‘You just hit your daddy quite hard and he’s very upset,’ says my wife. He has indeed just hit me, and for the third time in a row. As a very-nearly-three-year-old, his blows aren’t exactly damaging. It usually feels a bit like a squirrel wearing tiny oven gloves. But he has to learn that this isn’t OK, so I adopt the stance of someone mortally wounded and, worse, deeply hurt by the experience.

On such occasions, we observe the time-honoured three-second rule of toddler fisticuffs: he generally gets one free jab for which the sternest penalty is an assertive, but de-escalatory, ‘Hey now!’ If he goes full John Prescott with a follow-up blow within one second of the first, we assume battle stations. ‘Heyhey! We don’t hit people,’ we’ll say, delivered with the sterner mien of a football referee, one of those older ones who used to fit FA Cup Final appearances in between their full-time job as oil-rig workers or prison chefs.

Once three seconds have passed without ceasefire, or a third dig is thrown, we arbitrarily decide that it’s ‘a thing’ and address the event with the solemnity it deserves. We adopt a united front. ‘Now say sorry to your Daddy” my wife says. I bow my head, meaningfully. Sometimes, I throw in a few sniffles, but not so many as to turn it into a comedy routine. It’s a delicate balance but luckily I’m a gifted actor.

My son is unmoved. There is a familiar pause as he appears to accept the error of his ways, but steadfastly refuses to apologise. This is no longer a linguistic quirk. He knows the word, he just has a distaste for the emotional cost of admitting his own crimes. This is doubly frustrating for us. For one thing, we’re trying to teach him about responsibility and caring for others, so his refusal to apologise is a wearying setback. For another, it feels like an affront to our culture.

Irish people say sorry a lot. Reflexively apologising is something that’s baked into our psyche, like boiling meat or telling people how much our clothes cost any time someone compliments them. It’s as Irish as getting publicly annoyed when people say Saoirse Ronan is British, or privately annoyed when she speaks in a slightly exaggerated Irish accent on talkshows.

I’ve said sorry to people for over-tipping them with a note because I didn’t have change. I’ve apologised for walking into lamp-posts and – in one bravura moment of unthinking regretfulness – for a deluge of water thrown up by a passing bus. I’m pretty sure I say sorry when I hang up on robo-callers. If a mugger ever covered my mouth as he was stealing my belongings, I’d probably be mouthing a muffled ‘sorry’ through his gloved fingers.

Now the only unrelenting criminal here is my son. With a heavy mouth and glaring eyes, he offers his little hand to pat my head in a non-verbal apology that will have to do for now. Sometimes, sorry really is the hardest word.