Two kids commit the exact same bad behavior. One is remorseful and one is not. The one who displays real regret, we feel sorry for him and we want to cut him a break. We’ll even go to bat for him, pleading for leniency because after all, “He’s sorry for what he’s done.”
Both of the kid’s reactions to the bad gives us a glimpse of their current character as well as an idea of how much intervention is required (we don’t respond to kids—we intervene with kids).
The kid who is not sorry will need stronger and more focused intervention. The priority will be to instill the missing sense of what is right and wrong.
The second kid however, because he’s sorry, has demonstrated that he knows what is right and wrong but has difficulty choosing what is right and wrong. Therefore, this is less of an issue of malicious intent and more of an issue of being weak willed.
With the kid who is not remorseful, don’t waste time on anything else but teaching him to understand and to internalize what makes something right and wrong. If the kid can’t get this right, nothing will be right for him in life.
With the weak willed kids, don’t waste too much time berating them over the bad outcome, but instead teach them ways to resist making bad decisions. After all, that’s what they really need help with and that’s what their remorse has really shown us. If they had to do it all over again they would have chosen and preferred a different outcome.
In both of these scenarios both kids have demonstrated that they need positive adult intervention. As the adult, it’s important to draw a distinction between regretful and not regretful so when we help the kid we will have the appropriate intensity and focus of intervention.
I believe that most of our kids really don’t want to hurt themselves or others and if given a chance to do it over, they’d choose, as well as prefer, the good outcome. That makes them more weak willed than malicious and as crazy as this sounds, we should all be thankful for weak willed students.
Don’t lose sight that this is so much better, and easier to correct, than some other options.
Two final things
Character is not permanent and can change—for the better or the worse. Don’t write anyone off and don’t think that good will automatically become better without effort. Character can go both ways if left unattended.
No one likes being in trouble. Real regret is being sorry for the bad happening and not just sorry for being in trouble. You’ll know the difference.