5-year-old son: Mom, he hit me with his backpack!

Me: Did you hit your brother?

11-year-old son: No.

5-year-old: Yes, he did! He did!

Me (in calm and patient voice): Let me ask you again. Did you hit your brother with your backpack?

11-year-old: No.

Me (not so calm): I need you to tell the truth, here. Did you hit him?

11-year-old: No. I didn’t hit him.

Me (getting it):  Oh. Okay, then. You didn’t hit him. What did you do?

11-year-old: I swung my backpack over him.

Me: Did your backpack hit him?

11-year-old: Yes.


It took another 45 minutes to convince my son that playing with semantics is a sure way to drive his mother crazy. I think he should have said he was sorry, hence solving the whole problem. His view is that since he didn’t mean to hit his brother with the backpack (not totally, anyway), he shouldn’t have to say he’s sorry . . . or admit that he hit his brother, especially since the 5-year-old teased him first (about—it’s horrifying—a girl!).


Hey, I’m a fan of intentions. I have lots of good ones. But actions count, too. Don’t they?


We know about evil intentions and the subsequent evil works which follow:

   “For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.

   “For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.

   “For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.” (Moroni 7:6-8)


We also know about good works signifying good motivations:

“. . . for if their works be good, then they are good also” (Moroni 7:5).


What about my son? Medium-ish intention, poor consequence? Should he have to say he’s sorry?


[my son approved this post on the condition that I insert his answer. I quote, “NEVER!!!!!!!!!!”]

27 comments for “Intentions

  1. February 5, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    What comes to mind immediately is Bill Cosby’s routine, wherein he explains that parents don’t care about justice, they care about quiet.

    Frankly, this sounds like any number of conversations my older brother Chip and I had in front of our mom. Or, for that matter, that I and my little sister Jacque had in front of our mom.

    Politeness mandates a “sorry” for accidental contact as well as deliberate, so your son should probably learn that lesson now. Ask your (older) son if he accidentally hit that girl with his backpack, would he refuse to apologize to her? ..bruce..

  2. Kylie
    February 5, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Good question. I’ll ask when he gets home from school. Perhaps that will break through the “I didn’t mean to, so I shouldn’t have to apologize” mantra.

  3. February 5, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    After reading Nate Oman’s posts on 1 Nephi 17, and how a precise legal reading of situations is not always the best, it’s fitting that I found this as the next post.

    I agree with Bruce (1) — maybe it’s time to enlighten your boy on the legal definition of manslaughter vs. murder. :)


  4. Carborendum
    February 5, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Webster really brought out a good point. He would have apologized because he “loved” that girl. He would have felt empathy. He would have wanted to make her feel better.

    Apparently, he felt none for his little brother. And the 5-yr-old probably felt none for his older brother.

    In the truely accidental situation (and I don’t believe this is one) the sin is not necessarily the hit. The sin is in not having empathy or a desire to fix what was broken.

    But remember that you have TWO sons here. TWO sons need to apologize and learn from the experience.

  5. Adam Greenwood
    February 5, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    If we only take responsibility for things we did with full choice and meditation, we’re shearing off a lot of our lives.

  6. Struwelpeter
    February 5, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Sounds like your 11-year old could use some instruction on the concept of negligence. If I negligently run my car into a pedestrian, the fact that I didn’t mean to do so doesn’t change to the fact that I hit the pedestrian, and it also will likely result in a healthy monetary payment to the pedestrian or his estate.

  7. Rob M
    February 5, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    I have actually had this same conversation with my oldest child several times, EVEN AFTER WITNESSING the act. (And believe me, there was no lack of intent). I think the failure to communicate plainly bothers me more than anything.

    I believe it’s okay to apologize for things that we didn’t intend to happen. In fact, it may be required.

    In the legal realm, there are intentional torts and then there are torts of negligence. In other words, we don’t have to intend a certain consequence in order to be found liable. If I commit an act that could foreseeably become the direct, or often even indirect, cause of an injury (physical, pecuniary, or otherwise), than I may in fact be negligent. Thus, I try to teach my children that society requires us to consider the interests of others.

    I think there is a parallel in the spiritual sense (the golden rule, etc.). In fact, the Lord sets an even higher standard. Instead of discouraging potentially injurious behavior with punishments, he offers us a reward for actively doing good. This includes showing to compassion to those that become hurt despite our best intentions. Saying “sorry” for an unintended consequence is should not be viewed as an admission of liability that we might otherwise avoid.

  8. Rob M
    February 5, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Also, I’m not sure that Moroni 7 really aids in coming to any conclusion about unintended consequences. According to scripture, identical actions could yield different rewards based on intentions. I think that logic might actually aid your son’s position. I.e., if my intentions were good, why should I be treated as if my intentions were bad?

  9. Ginger
    February 5, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Definitely he should have to apologize. Disregarding any gospel reasons, this is called manners and politeness. If he were to accidentally step on someone’s toes, wouldn’t he say, “oh, excuse me.”, or “oh, I’m sorry.” Common etiquette requires an apology even when the action is accidental.

    Perhaps your son could use a Miss Manners book for his next birthday? :-)

  10. February 5, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Yeah, I would have had him say I’m sorry. Usually, when my kids hurt one another, I have them apologize and look after one another – we ARE our brother’s keepers.

    I also think that it is important to teach our children about sympathy and empathy. For example, I didn’t cause my friend’s spouse to lose his job, but I can still express sorrow for the family (ie: “Wow, I’m sorry for your loss. We’ll pray for you).

    Additionally, I think it is important for kids to learn to think about what they’re doing. Sure, they may not have intentionally hurt a sibling, but they could have been more intentional not to hurt the sibling – ie – not swinging the backpack over his sister’s head.

    So – I guess this is the fun of parenthood. Teaching our children to be intentionally kind, sympathetic, caring…It’s women like you that are changing the world!

  11. February 5, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    When I was growing up my dad defined a lie as “any communication with the intent to deceive.” The budding young lawyer that I was, (and the oldest child, at that) I tried to use semantics to get out of a lot of my misdeeds. But with an operating definition so broad as that, I never got out of much.

  12. plover
    February 5, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Apologies given under duress, when not meant, teach etiquette and form. Those are important, but I think only the start of what you are getting at.

    One thing that has worked nicely for my children is to get them to use their imagination. At moments like these, I have them state what happened and three feelings that they had when the event occurred (the rule is that they can’t be interrupted). After both have done that, then they have to explain how the other person saw what happened and how they think the other person felt (again, name three feelings). This little exercise asks the child to step out of their own feelings and imagine feelings from another perspective. Somehow the actual act of naming the feelings of another is an invitation to reconsider.

    It took some practice, and lots of rolled eyes, but this little process has been quite helpful. Actually, since asking my children to do this, I try and do it (the imagine part) in my own conflicts.

  13. Kylie
    February 5, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Wow, plover #12–that is much more creative than my simple rule: You can be done with this when you tell me what you did wrong without any reference to what the other person did.

    Don’t worry, #4. The 5-year-old had to apologize, too–for teasing his brother. Luckily he caught on quickly and we were done with that part of the episode without too much trouble.

    Peter R, I’m glad your expertise with language turned into a productive career. More than once, I’ve tried to convince myself that my son’s negotiating skills could be a talent that I shouldn’t stifle . . . at least not totally.

  14. Kylie
    February 5, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    Thanks Catania (#10). You are exactly right about empathy. Obviously forcing someone to say he/she is sorry is the most elementary of steps towards something much grander.

    My problem is that I’m not exactly sure how one is to “teach” empathy. I suppose that is at the heart of the situation above. Some of my children seem born with it, and others will need to learn.

  15. February 5, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    In situations like this I try to simulate the experience of the victim for the aggressor. Most times times simply asking something like, “Would you like me to swing a bat over your head?” obviates actually doing anything physically.

    If your 11 year old swung a projectile at someone half his age with the intent to frighten him into silence, you could use the words “terrorism” or “thug” or “assault” to describe the act and the intent. There are scores of scripture passages about how the intent matters, and about how the feeling he wanted to evoke was an equivalent act of malice.

    Then, simply define the parameters and expectations you have for his answer? “Then, you *did* hit him. Your arm swung the pack. Your intent was to injure his spirit, and you ended up injuring his body and his spirit. You acted like a thug. Is that how you want people to know you?”

    That sort of thing, coupled with a careful reading of Matt 25:40 sets the whole attitude in a much wider and more spiritual context.

    YMMV, of course, but when I used this approach with my own son after a similar experience with him, he wanted to apologize on his own. I didn’t need to make him do it.

  16. February 5, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Hmm, I was just checking out LDS blogs out of boredom and I came across this. I did not know that you blog here, Kylie.

    On your subject, my reasons why are long and boring, but I think making a kid apologize for wrongdoing is the right step. Catania said it better than I could.

  17. Eric Boysen
    February 5, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    My wife would be right in there with the make them both apologize camp. I’m not so sure myself as I think a forced apology is not one at all. They need the empathy to be there or it just doesn’t work.

  18. Jenny
    February 6, 2009 at 12:26 am

    Christina our new born daughter helped me realize how much my husband Frank loved me. You can’t believe the amount of joy when he gifted me a beautiful gold medal with the words “World’s greatest achievement” engraved on it. You will agree when you check this for yourself at

  19. February 6, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Yeah – I agree – it is hard to teach empathy. My older daughter is very compassionate and empathetic, whereas my younger one is all about justice – for her (not so much for anyone else).

    Most of the time, I just turn it around – as in “How would you like it if [sibling] hit you? What would you do?” Then, “Now think about what she is feeling…” We have been doing this for a few years. It seems to be getting a little bit better. I don’t know – though, we’ll see.

    This parenthood stuff is a mystery to me. Above all, I start to admire both my own parents and my Heavenly Father more because I realize that they’ve been dealing with this from all of us for SOOOOO long.

  20. Carborendum
    February 6, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    It is virtualy impossible to teach empathy to an angry pupil. I like #12 method.

    One thing about forcing them to “follow the forms” of apology is that as they grow up, they will remember. There is much that my parents taught me and punished me for. As a child, I refused to accept their lessons. But as I went out on my own, I kept seeing how their lessons would help.

    As long as you make sure it is in their heads. As an adult, they will eventually make their own decisions to apply or deny.

  21. TMD
    February 6, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    At some point, the kid will learn all about the insincere apology…he doesn’t actually have to regret that he hit his brother (the kid deserved it…sometimes getting what you deserve is much more effective than having to apologize in teaching people how to deal with others…).

  22. TMD
    February 6, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Of course, fully establishing peace with this method will involve teaching the little kid to fight dirty, so as to deter his older brother…

  23. Kylie
    February 6, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Unfortunately, TMD, the little ones learn all too quickly how to take care of themselves. In fact, I saw the 2-year-old girl take down the 5 year old this morning without much problem.

  24. Kylie
    February 6, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    Good to know you’re around, Jack. Hope you’re still checking up on us Mormons.

  25. February 8, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Kylie, for years one of my kids had this idea that apology was all about intention. It’s not. It’s about harm. So what if he didn’t mean to hit his brother. He did. And I’d say his case is weakened more than just a bit by swinging the backpack. It’s not like he tripped on a rock and ran into him.

  26. February 8, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Reminds me of Steve Martin’s humor routine about not paying your taxes. “I forgot” “Well, excuuuuuse me!”

    I’d talk to the kid about intending his actions (swinging the backpack) means being responsible for the natural consequences (hitting his brother).

    And the concept of bearing false witness vis a vis semantics.

    All kids go through that as a stage. Or should (I meet adults who still have not gone through it).

  27. February 8, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    He was being a jerk. A defensive jerk who felt entitled due to having his ego pricked. He needs to get over that crap soon, because it really looks ugly when he gets arrested on a DV charge. He should apologize and get a lot more honest with himself — that kind of rationalization isn’t cool.

    I would tell him more or less that (in a situationally appropriate fashion that would still probably piss him off — it’s my style). And I would curse under my breath yet again the slimy defense-attorney mentality he’s showing, and the slimy defense-attorneys who are examples of it. Please note the absence of a claim that all defense-attorneys are slimy and are subject to the pox I have cursed them with.

    If you did it, own it, deal with it, move on with your life. It is always easier than bobbing and weaving and ducking and dodging and trying to evade responsibility because, even if you can avoid being held accountable by mortals, you just can’t fool God. He’s not an idiot, and he doesn’t have any rules of evidence to create loopholes you can try to get past him with. Fooling Mom and Dad is a lot easier, but comes at a pretty steep price. Better to get it over with and sleep better at night.

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