The power of the apology

The Power of the Apology

If you are stingy with your apologies, or can’t remember the last time you sincerely apologized to your child, you might want to think about it. Why? Sometimes it’s just the right thing to do.  And, if things really aren’t going well, apologizing can be a powerful reset button.

Before we start, I want to be clear about something: Apologizing will not turn you into a spineless, overly permissive, “best friend” type parent. It won’t. That’s not how I roll. That’s not how I parent. I used to think that apologizing was weak, or at the very least, unnecessary. The truth was: I just didn’t want to apologize. I didn’t like it. I’ve never really “liked” it. But, things with my son weren’t going well. His behaviour told me something was up.  He wasn’t listening, he made things difficult and he wasn’t affectionate.  Our relationship was not good, and he was letting me know. I look back on it now and realize that I was on the verge of alienating my son, on the verge of losing him. If I continued my style of I’m the boss (no questions asked) parenting, our relationship would suffer.  I could feel it. I could see the future and it wasn’t good. Luckily, my son was patient with me. I put my big boy pants on and started owning my mistakes. Our relationship improved, his behviour almost immediately improved, and I could sense that we were getting back on track. Thank god I found a way to repair our relationship.

I’ve come to see the apology as a brave act. Admitting I was wrong was not an easy thing to do. It was gut wrenching hard. Admitting to your child’s face that you messed and hurt them is challenging to say the least. But, it’s worth it and I’m going to tell you why. I understand that some of you might be thinking, “What do I have to apologize for anyway? I am a good parent, trying my best, putting tons of time and energy into my kid(s). WTF.” Sarcastically, you might be thinking: “So what do you suggest I apologize for then: Going to work? Supporting my family? Making money so we can eat and have a roof over our heads?? Or, maybe I should apologize for making meals, cleaning the house, and doing laundry”? The list could I on. I get it.

I’m not trying to take anything away from hard working parents. Stay with me here. Apologizing doesn’t mean that we are bad parents, or that we are not trying hard enough. It just means that we are human, and we make mistakes. That’s it. It’s a way to let our kids in on the secret that we’re not perfect. We might admit this to our spouses or friends, but rarely do we allow our children in on the secret. This is important. Aside from being the absolute truth for every single parent in the world, this admission, through apology, is worth it’s weight in gold. The apology repairs relationships, it teaches the right behaviour, and let’s our kids know making mistakes is okay. The apology let’s our kids know they are worthy of respect. It models bravery, truth and authenticity. Lastly, the power of the speaking the apology out loud cannot be underestimated. Words have power. All of this is invaluable. It’s invaluable to your child’s development and the relationship you’d like to have with your child.

For some of us, this is still hard to get… shouldn’t kids just know that we are doing our best? And shouldn’t that be good enough? Can’t we just call it even? To a certain extent, yes, this is true. As parents who love and do so much for our kids, we can be forgiven for most things. But, when we mess up in ways that hurt our kids, we need to own our mistakes. “But apologizing makes me feel wrong, and feeling wrong makes me feel bad, and feeling bad feels… bad”. Here’s how much I used to hate the idea of owning my own mistakes: I pretended that what I doing was right, and that whatever hurtful action I took (read: hitting, yelling, shaming, manipulating) was justified. Here are some things that I would have said to myself after hurting my kids: “Well, he should have just cleaned up his toys”. Or “That wouldn’t have happened if she just brushed her teeth when I asked her to”. I could go on. But, it’s bullshit. Think about it. Isn’t it just a little strange that I get to scream, hurt, and shame my kids if they don’t “behave”? The absurdity of it hit me one day in a moment of truth. I thought about how I was trying to raise my kids. I thought to myself, “Let me get this straight, I am trying to help my kids become responsible, caring, free thinking individuals? How the hell am I supposed to accomplish that by acting out the very things I don’t want them to do”? It is absurd, but, that’s what I did, and I pretended that it was fine parenting. To get a good picture of it, all you have to do is imagine me forcefully grabbing my 2 year old and screaming, “Calm down”!! Yup.

The fact is: hurting, yelling, shaming and manipulating are not cool. They are mistakes. It’s okay, we all make mistakes as parents. We will act out of anger and frustration, and we will do and say things we really shouldn’t. It’s okay, but let’s not pretend that it’s good parenting or something we should strive for.

So, what does the Apology offer?

An apology restores connection:

Each time we fly off the handle, yell at, physically hurt, shame, or manipulate our children, we damage trust, and damage the relationship. The good news is: An apology restores trust, and repairs the relationship! It is simple, yet powerful. It’s a saving grace for a parent like me who messes up all the time.

I remember thinking that my young son didn’t seem to hold anything against me. He would wake up the next day and love me just the same. I didn’t matter if I had apologized or not. I would breathe a sigh of relief. “We’re good to go”! I would think. The love of a young one is strong. So why apologize then? My misstep already seemed to be forgiven. A child has a short memory right? And he basically forgave me when he hugged and kissed me before breakfast, right? That’s one way to look at it. Here is another way to look at it: If we don’t own the hurt we inflict, it will stay with our kids, build up, and get in the way of our relationships. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Parents often wonder why their child becomes distant, less affectionate…hard to talk to as they get older. Is this just a function of age, or is there something else at play? Unresolved issues much? Is there actually such a thing as a loving respectful teenager? Imagine. So, the earlier we start being real, the better. The more trust you engender by being authentic with your child, the stronger your relationship will be. And here is the the secret to parenting: the stronger and healthier your relationship with your child, the easier and more enjoyable your job as a parent will be. Bingo!

An Apology models the right behaviour:

How do kids learn? They learn by watching us. They do what we do. I dance naked in the living room, they dance naked in the living room. It’s simple. If we apologize for something we did wrong, they will start to do the same. You might be thinking: “Really? Can this be true”? Yes, this type of learning is powerful and enduring. And the bonus is: you don’t have to hear yourself say, “say you’re sorry, say you’re sorry, say you’re sorry” a jillion times. It might be quicker and easier to teach this automated apology. But, it’s forced, not real, and probably lacks any sincerity. “Say it like you mean it”!! Ha. On, the other hand, a real apology repairs. Be patient, your child will learn to authentically apologize. But until she does, you can apologize for her if you need to.

An apology from a parent to a child also signals to the child that it’s okay to mess up. Everyone makes mistakes, even parents. Mistakes are part of life and they are going to happen. NBD baby. The atmosphere that results is: let’s not dwell on our mistakes too much, we won’t be defined by them. We can forgive ourselves. Mistakes are not us. We are okay. We may have done something wrong, but we are not wrong. We are good. The apology restores us to goodness. Magic!

An apology sets a tone of respect

When someone apologizes to me, it does something for my self esteem. Holding my chin a little higher, I feel worthy of being apologized to. Valued. Someone who feels worthy of being apologized to, feels they deserve respect. This is, with out a doubt, how I want my kids to carry themselves in this world: worthy of respect.

An apology promotes resiliency

A great deal of how we learn is by making mistakes. Making mistakes is healthy and natural. Failing is good! Say what? Failing is good? Yes! Early childhood micro-failures, should be embraced, seen as opportunities to learn empathy, problem solving, and accountability. A parent modelling the apology is teaching these important lessons, without having to “teach”. Being able to constructively deal with little failures early on, prepares for us for bigger failures later on. This leads to resiliency of character, in a big way. Resilient children are tougher, bounce backier… not wet noodles, and probably won’t get too upset they don’t get ribbons for everything they do. Aiming for and accepting perfection can paralyze; while accepting, and knowing how to deal with failures, sets us free.

A child who has never whiffed the scent of a parent’s frailty, a child who lives in the world of parents=right, children=wrong, is at a disadvantage in this world. Gun-shy to make mistakes, the child that has internalized that he can’t fail, because it’s too painful, will not be bold, will not take risks, and at the extreme, will be plagued with a lingering feeling of not being good enough. Yuck. As far as I’m concerned, our world needs brave risk takers that are going to confidently solve the complex problems of the future. Let’s make that happen.

A quick how to: Apologizing 101

Hey, I’m sorry I lost my temper and screamed at you. It must have scared you. [pause] I’m going to try to talk to you in a calm way from now on.”

This is an apology. It outlines what was done, the impact, and what needs to change. Allowing your child to speak and reflect also adds a depth of empowerment to the situation and lets them work through any feelings they are having.

An Apology speaks words into being:

One day, after hearing myself apologize to my son for what felt like the 100th time for being rough with him, I finally got it. “Just because I’m his Dad, doesn’t give me the right to hurt him or manhandle him”. Speaking the words out loud does something. Maybe it creates transparency, bringing unacceptable behaviour into the light. Maybe it creates a reference point, an expectation for better behaviour. I does something. Maybe I was just sick of hearing myself apologize again and again. But something happened, something shifted.

A little bit about what this is not:

It’s not about apologizing for every little thing. “I’m so sorry I didn’t get your toast right this morning sweetie. I’m going to try to do better in the future.” No. It’s about apologizing for significant mess ups. As a result, we can let little things slide, both for us and for our kids. If we are more forgiving, our children will be more forgiving. For example, I have a knack for breaking plates and glasses. This is what I say when my kids break a glass now. “Aww, no problem, everyone makes mistakes. Here, let me help you.” Funny, but true.

It’s not about letting our kids “get away” with bad behaviour. Apologizing for your mistakes is separate from them owning their mistakes. Two different things. And remember: you owning your mistakes, will only help them learn how to own theirs.

A couple of don’ts:

Don’t blame your kid for your mistake. You know, “the I’m sorry, but you made me do it” one. This is twisted. I finally realized that I was doing this. What I needed to do was apologize, and then stop. No strings attached. No buts! “But”? No buts. None of this stuff: “I’m sorry I was rough with you and hurt you, but you just wouldn’t stop being loud… and we were in a restaurant, and you can’t yell like that in a restaurant”. #worstapologyever. Separate the two. Apologize first. Talk about behaviour later.

I hope it goes without saying: don’t apologize using gifts, sweets, or special treats. This takes you down a weird road, and teaches the wrong lessons..and would likely get prohibitively expensive as your kid grows!

Conclusion- I had no other option

It has been difficult for me to learn how to apologize for making mistakes. I had to take a long hard look at myself. Knowing that I was hurting people I loved so much was hard enough. Acknowledging the hurt, owning it, was even harder. The alternative wasn’t an option. There are plenty of examples of parent/child relationships out there where a perfect parent could do no wrong. It works for a while, but then kids grow up, the relationship suffers. I saw this and knew immediately I didn’t want it. I chose something different. I gave up my absolute parental power for an authentic and enduring relationship. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d continued to act the way I was acting… without repairing the damage. I don’t think it would have been good. I looked into the future and saw myself sitting alone one day asking, “What the hell happened”?

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6 comments

  1. Good job Naked Dad. One thing to add. Your apology must result in changed behaviours in yourself. I think about this often. I don’t want my daughter’s growing up thinking it’s ok to be treated badly, so long as there is an apology that goes along with it. If it’s just an apology, then what…..

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    1. I asked myself one day what is better: hurting your kids and apologizing or not apologizing? The answer was clear.

      I can’t speak for everyone, but the act of apologizing actually propelled me to change my behaviour. You get to taste the shit in your mouth and look into your kids eyes as you tell them you are going to be better. Motivated me!

      I’m sure there are some toxic situations out there, but a sincere parent child relationship where the parent is modelling the right thing to do and honestly trying to be better does not set your child up for being any easy target for abuse say. IMHO. You see, I learned not to make excuses for my behaviour. Had I tried to trick my kids into believing that my bad behaviour was their fault, then I could see your concern. From what I know about people that stay in hurtful relationships, they do so in part because they think they deserve it. At no point is it okay to directly or indirectly tell your kids that that they deserve any kind of pain you inflict.

      By owning your actions completely with no excuses and no backhanded blaming of your kids, I believe you can avoid what you mentioned.

      But to be honest, I used to worry about the day that my apology meant nothing. I heard myself saying sorry so much while nothing seemed to change. Things actually were changing, only incrementally. But it seemed like they weren’t and I was worried. I believe that day would have come had I not changed my behaviour. That day would have been justified. And the consequences would have been terrible.

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