“Wait!” you cry. How can a “master parent” be someone who needs to apologize? Doesn’t being a “master” imply that mistakes aren’t made and moments of weakness are met with awesome self-control? If “mastery” was synonymous with “perfection,” perhaps the parenting masters wouldn’t need to apologize to their children. The fact is, however, that no matter how many years of parenting experience we have, we are still human and therefore occasionally behave in ways that we regret, and thus can benefit from developing our apologizing skills.

What is an apology?

Merriam-Webster’s definition describes an apology as “an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret,” while the FreeDictionary.com defines it as “an acknowledgment expressing regret or asking pardon for a fault or offense.” For me the objectives of making an apology are to (a) honestly acknowledge our mistake(s), (b) commit to a new/different course of action, (c) seek reconnection (because our mistakes often lead to a disconnection). Throughout the remainder of this article, when I use the words “apology” or “apologize,” I’m referring to this 3-part process.

“When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends, or change a behavior that doesn’t align with our values, guilt—not shame—is most often the driving force. We feel guilty when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do against our values and find they don’t match up. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful. The psychological discomfort, something similar to cognitive dissonance, is what motivates meaningful change. Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. In fact, in my research I found that shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better.”

~ Brené Brown

Apologies matter to parent-child relationships

The old, but still oft-practiced model of parenting had the parent as the authority figure and the child as the minion (well maybe not minion, but certainly one who was lower in rank than the mom or dad). apology-is-superglueThe parent was infallible. The child might not have liked mom’s choices but the thinking was that the child needed to “suck it up,” “do as you’re told,” and “toe the line” no matter what. Phrases like “I’m doing this for your own good,” “because I said so, that’s why,” and “this hurts me more than it hurts you” originate in this outdated parenting mindset.

Today more and more people recognize that parents and children, though not equal in age or life-experience, do have a peer relationship, or at least they are destined to have one once the child herself becomes an adult.

“To parent consciously requires us to undergo personal transformation. In fact, it’s my experience that the relationship between parent and child exists for the primary purpose of the parent’s transformation and only secondarily for the raising of the child.”

~ Shefali Tsabary

If we are to cultivate a long-term, respect-based relationship with our children, then apologizing is one of the tools we will need. When we apologize, we foster numerous positive relationship qualities:

  • Respect: By acknowledging our own mistakes, we communicate that how we treat our child matters to us, that our child is a person whom we honor and respect. When we respect our child, she naturally will treat us with equal respect.
  • Connection: When we speak or act hurtfully toward our daughter, it causes a disconnection. She may feel sad, angry, confused, or believe she is unloved or only loved conditionally. These emotions make it easy for her to pull away from us. Apologizing is a way to rebuild the bridge back across this gap and once again show that our intention is to be in right relationship with her. Re-connected, we can once again easily feel her love and she can easily feel ours.
  • Acceptance: The world gives us plenty of messages about our own inadequacies and what we don’t get directly from the cultural loudspeakers we manufacture in our own minds. This same reality faces our children. When we apologize and are forgiven, we are given the gift of acceptance, and we can (hopefully) rest a bit easier knowing that even in our own imperfect state, we are still worthy of love.
  • Trust: Acting hurtfully towards others makes it easy for them to pull back from us out of fear and for the bond of trust to be broken. Apologizing lets our son know that we “get” how our negative actions affected him and that our intention is to create positive interactions in our relationship. An apology can help re-establish a sense of emotional safety in our home or parent-child relationship.
  • Freedom: When adults don’t apologize, part of the message that gets sent is: “Making mistakes isn’t allowed” (This is even more powerful when parents are critical of their children or punish them for making mistakes.). By modeling the willingness to apologize to our children, they learn that everyone messes up from time to time and that we can all recover from our mistakes.

How to make an apology to your child (or anyone)

As I wrote earlier, I see three objectives to the act of apologizing: (a) honestly acknowledging our mistake(s), (b) committing to a new/different course of action, (c) seeking reconnection. The great thing about these objectives is that they are also the steps to making an apology.

  1. Honestly acknowledge your mistake. State what you did (or didn’t do). Do not add in the reasons you did this or anything that can sound like justifying yourself. For instance, “I’m sorry that I spoke to you in a harsh tone of voice” is the correct version of this step. Do not say: “I’m sorry that I spoke to you harshly. I was feeling really irritated that I had to tell you to put away your backpack three times.” By doing so you are expressing regret but also getting a bit of a “dig” into your child for “provoking” your mistake.
  2. Verbalize your intended course of action in the future. State what you plan to do differently going forward. Using the same example above, this might sound like: “Next time I notice that I’m feeling frustrated, I’m going to take a pause to breathe deeply before I speak out loud.” Or, “When I’m feeling frustrated, I’m simply going to tell you how I’m feeling.”
  3. Do something to reconnect with your child. Take action that fuels feelings of togetherness. This might be sitting quietly at your son’s side; giving him a pat on the shoulder and a kiss on his head; asking “Can I give you a hug?” or “What could we do right now that would be fun?” Depending on your child and how he’s feeling by this point, humor can be a great tool too. You might joke and say, “Would it be good if I wore a ‘dunce cap’ for awhile or sat in the corner?,” or “As punishment should I go without coffee now or ice cream?”

Owning our mistakes is something many of us were conditioned not to do. Our culture reinforces the idea that apologizing is a weakness. For parents, there’s the added pressure of the belief that they should “have it together” and “get it right.” Combined, these factors make it easy for moms and dads to unconsciously follow the outdated parenting model of never saying you’re sorry. If parents want to develop and maintain close, connected, respectful relationships with their children, however, being willing and able to apologize is essential.

“The way you parent will affect not only your child, but the lives of hundreds and perhaps thousands of people in your child’s future. You don’t have a choice about whether or not to affect this net of interdependence; however, you do have a choice about how you affect it.”

~ Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson

Also in Apologizing parents are good for families

The series covers apologies by parents: I cover how to make a sincere apology, how apologies nurture sustainable parent-child relationships, and how to change our behavior that led to our apology in the first place.

  1. Apologizing — a skill of a masterful parent
  2. Apologies aren’t enough (from parents)

View the entire series