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Learning to say, "I'm sorry"

April 22, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, this scenario played out in my house:

It was Easter Sunday, and I was in a hurry to get myself and my daughter dressed and in the car to go to church. My husband was already there, so I was alone in my endeavor. In the midst of cooking food for the family dinner we would have later in the day, I’m showering, getting dressed, getting my daughter dressed and packing all of the necessities. I’m also pregnant, which means getting dressed isn’t as simple as it used to be. I was hot, uncomfortable, frustrated, and running late. Can you guess what happened?

I lost my temper. I told my 3-year-old to shut up. I’m not proud of it, but it happened. I also said another word (which I won’t repeat, even though my daughter did). Let’s just say that it wasn’t my finest moment.

When we finally got settled into the car, and I had a moment to sit in the quiet (and the air conditioning!), I realized what I had done. I knew it wasn’t right. And I knew I needed to apologize.

I believe in a couple of cornerstones of parenting, and this is one of them that I’ll live and die by: when I’m wrong I say I’m wrong, and I ask for forgiveness.

I know, though, that this is different than the way a lot of parents feel. Some parents believe that in order to maintain the upper hand, to gain respect and establish their authority, they must convey that they are also infallible. To be seen as credible, they can’t admit they were wrong. There can’t be any cracks showing in the foundation. Even worse is when we know we’ve done something wrong and we think we probably should apologize, but instead we just try to cover it up and hope our kid doesn’t think too much about it.

When we treat our children disrespectfully, they know they’ve been disrespected. And I believe that unless we go back and acknowledge that they were treated unfairly and improperly, they’ll begin to believe that somehow they deserve to be treated that way. And worse, they will come to expect that type of treatment from others. I want my daughter to grow into an adult who knows that she inherently is worthy of love and respect, and she doesn’t have to accept anything less.

Does it make me less of a successful mother because I’ve admitted my wrongdoing? Absolutely not. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. We all fail at parenthood from time to time. It’s not a secret. But, we can gain the trust and respect of our children by being willing to admit when we’re wrong and correcting the behavior. It is the same standard we hold for our children, and we can’t expect any less of ourselves.

So, this is what I said to my daughter:

“Avery, you know when Mommy got really angry earlier and I said ugly

things to you?”

“Yes,” she said sadly, still ashamed.

“I’m really sorry I said ugly words to you. Mommy should not have said that.”

“Yes, Mommy. You said bad words. That is not nice. You are not supposed to

say bad words,” she told me in her most disapproving tone.

“I know I said bad words. I’m sorry. Did I hurt your feelings?” I asked.

“Yes, Momma. You make me sad,” she told me as my heart broke a little.

“I’m so sorry I hurt your feelings. I will try not to do that anymore. Do you forgive Momma?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Ok. I love you.”

And, then we moved on to something else. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it was the best I could do to repair the damage. And at least she knows that it was my failure, not hers, that was responsible for the awful feelings she experienced.

Just as important, though, as knowing when to apologize is knowing when not to apologize. When my child has misbehaved, and she is crying uncontrollably and begging me not to send her to time-out, I resist the urge to say that I am sorry. I do feel badly that she is upset, but I know that I am doing the right thing. She feels badly because of her own failure to behave properly, and I am not responsible for apologizing for that.

I also have to resist the urge to apologize when I haven’t given in to her desires. Every day without fail, often multiple times a day, she asks me for treats. Sometimes I say yes, and sometimes I say no. A treat denied is no laughing matter for my kid. She wants it badly, and she gets very upset. But, I don’t need to apologize when I’ve said no. It’s my job as her parent to decide whether she should or shouldn’t have it. As I often remind her: “I am the boss, not you.” That’s the way it should be.

It hasn’t always been easy to decide which things I should apologize for and which I shouldn’t. But, over time, knowing when and how to say I’m sorry has gotten easier for me. I hope that when my daughter grows up and she remembers those moments where I failed her that she also remembers the efforts I made to correct my mistakes.

How about you? Do you say you’re sorry to your kids? How do you decide what you should and shouldn’t apologize for?