Our children know that we are not perfect. If allowed to point out our flaws, our kids could list more than a handful very quickly. Yet one overbearing trend is to silence their ability to talk to us about our mistakes. We skew the most vital relationship our children have (their relationship with Mom and Dad) into a power vacuum by teaching that the parent is "always right," even when the parent is wrong. And wo be unto the child that points out a parents' mistake! The answer is given, "I am the parent, and you cannot talk to me that way!" No wonder our children have a difficult time taking responsibility and apologizing for their actions. Too many adults set a poor example of accountability.
When children make mistakes, it is the job of the parent to correct their actions through discipline. The word discipline doesn't mean harsh punishment. Rather, the word simply means "to teach" or "to train." As parents, we teach our children to act in acceptable ways by helping them understand their offence, make amends for the damage, and then plan to avoid the mistake in the future.
Shouldn't the same pattern apply to us when we make a parenting mistake?
Perhaps we yelled. Perhaps we overreacted and spanked their little bums. Perhaps we hastily took their toys away before listening to their story of the story. Perhaps we ignored them as they talked to us, and they caught on to our mindless "uh-huhs." As some point in time, every parent makes a mistake.
When the inevitable goof happens, parents should apologize.
It won't hurt your authority over your family one bit to gather your crying child in your arms and offer a heartfelt apology. You can still dictate what time the children go to bed and that they eat their vegetables at dinner. Their respect and reverence for you as the all-powerful Mom or Dad will not wilt away because you admit you made a mistake. Conversely, it will probably strengthen your relationship. By offering a heartfelt apology, you are modeling the virtue of humility, and you are validating their pain and confusion. So, here's how to apologize to your children:
1. Take them aside and genuinely tell them you are sorry.
2. Explain that your action was wrong and that you will try not to react that way again.
3. Reassure them that you love them, and that you want to be a good parent.
4. Ask for forgiveness.
Now, here is what you must not do when apologizing to your children:
1. Do not make your mistake their fault
For example, their annoying or frustrating behavior did not make you yell. You chose to yell. Do not say, "You were just acting so horridly that I had to yell at you." Instead, explain that their actions made you feel very frustrated and out of anger you yelled. Take responsibility for your actions and apologize.
2. Do not force them to forgive you
Let them forgive you on their own terms, and do not punish them if forgiveness is delayed. Do not say, "Well, I apologized, so if you want a ride to your friend's house, you better say I'm forgiven." Model the process of a genuine apology and genuine forgiveness in your home.
3. Do not apologize that your children "feel" a certain way
The common statement, "Well, I'm sorry you feel angry," is not an apology. It is actually kind of a mockery. Your children should be allowed to feel angry. Emotions are not bad; it is the behavior that follows an emotion that has positive or negative consequences. Teach your children how to appropriately handle their emotions by properly explaining your emotions and by apologizing when you make a mistake.
4. Do not offer an apology in order to cover-up or erase what happened,
and don't ask your children to keep secrets from the other parent. That is an unfair burden to place on a child. You are responsible for your actions, not them. Along the same note, try not to spoil your children in order to appease your guilt. An abundance of presents and ice cream in exchange for forgiveness does not teach a healthy reconciliation process.
Apologizing to a child takes a great deal of humility. If you can humble yourself enough to get down on your knees and reconcile with your children, you are giving them a beautiful gift. You are showing them that they are valuable, and they are worthy of an apology. Self-esteem will blossom as a result. You are also setting an example that teaches them to apologize to others. Think of the benefits their future careers, marriages, and families. Habits of honesty and forgiveness will lead to more peace at home. The choice to start that habit begins with you. This article was originally published on Joyful Family Life. It has been republished here with permission.
Nicci Bontrager, MA, LPC-Intern, NCC practices counseling in the Austin, Texas area. On her blog, www.joyfulfamilylife.com, she writes about strengthening families, marriage, emotional health, & finding joy. She graduated from Texas State University.