Updated: Jul 27, 2020
As parents we want our children to be respectful of other’s feelings and be quick to admit when they are wrong. We want them to give a sincere apology and learn from their mistakes. But how many parents will apologise to their children? We seem to live in a culture where adults feel that they are superior to children and therefore they don’t owe them an apology even when the adult has done the wrong thing. Adults worry that if they admit that they are wrong to a child that this somehow undermines their authority. Or they feel that whatever they did was justified because it was the child that drove them to behave that way, so they shouldn’t have to apologise. All of these beliefs are false and by following these beliefs we are damaging our relationship with our kids and missing out on the lessons our kids could learn from us simply by saying “sorry”.
The benefits of saying “sorry” to our children
Although parents can feel vulnerable when they apologise to their kids, the benefits can be life changing.
Improve your relationship with each other: Parents fear that their children won’t respect them but the truth is, children respect them more when they are willing to admit they were wrong. A sincere apology will actually strengthen the bond between a parent and a child. When to apologise, you are acknowledging your child’s feelings and that those feelings are important. You are recognising that your relationship with them has been damaged and you want to make it better. Asking your child to forgive you isn’t giving them power over you in the relationship but it does give them a sense of being valued enough that would want their forgiveness. This vulnerability an acceptance in the relationship means that the child will feel safe that you care and that bond will improve.
We all make mistakes: When we admit that we get it wrong sometimes, we are actually allowing our children to have the freedom of making mistakes. If children think that adults don’t make mistake they will ultimately have unrealistic expectations of themselves. We are helping them see that making mistakes is inevitable, but when we admit what we have done, we can learn and move on.
Modelling: There is no better place for a child to learn than from their parents. But if a child never sees and experiences the benefit of an apology, then how are they supposed to do this for themselves? A sincere apology rather than a quick “sorry” will help children navigate friendships throughout their entire life, from the playground, to work-life and beyond. When they see your bravery and willingness to be vulnerable, they will learn to have the courage to do this for themselves.
Accountability: When we apologise to our children we are teaching them that we are each responsible for our own actions. No matter what it was that drove us to do or say what we did, apologising for our part shows that we had a choice and we chose the wrong one. By doing this we teach our children that they are accountable for their choices too and we can’t use others as an excuse for our behaviours.
Learning experience: When parents apologise to their children they are drawing a clear line of what behaviour is okay and what isn’t. You can talk to your child about what you should do next time and even problem-solve together of what to do in a similar situation to that you don’t make the same mistakes.
How we get it wrong
Sorry but”: Often parents think that they apologise to their children but they do the “I’m sorry, but”. When we add the “but” we contradict the apology. The “but” means that we were justified in our behaviour. “I’m sorry I yelled, but you wouldn’t hurry up and we were late”. That isn’t an apology it is a justification. Now I am in no way wanting to make parents feeling guilty. We have all yelled when we are stressed, that is reality, we are human and we make mistakes. However, this is all the more reason to explain our part in the problem.
Pick your time: We may realise we have said or done the wrong thing, but if we yell “I’m sorry” it will lose its meaning. Wait until you are calm enough to talk with a kind and sincere tone. That way your child won’t be defensive and feel that they have to fight back.
Bring up past wrongs: when you are apologising for your actions, leave it at that. Don’t bring up all the times your child has done the wrong things. If the conversation leads to them recognising what that did wrong too, then good, talk about it, but don’t point it out in your apology.
What to do instead
When we apologise to our kids, we need to focus on our actions and what we did that was not what we value as appropriate behaviour. We need to be sincere and make it clear that we are genuine. Take the time to sit with them, use a calm voice and look them in the eye (if they are comfortable with this). Recognise how you both felt in the situation and plan what you can do next time. So, in the example I just mentioned, if you yell at your child when you are trying to get out the door because you are running late (and who hasn’t?). You could say “I’m sorry I yelled at you to hurry up. I was stressed because we were running late, but I shouldn’t have yelled at you”. You could ask how it felt for them and recognise that it wasn’t fun for anyone. Then problem-solve together, what could we to avoid this next time?
Taking the time to apologise with our children will strengthen your relationship, help your child feel valued and model how to do this for themselves.