My father was a good man, but “I’m sorry” were words I never heard from him. He was part of the silent generation and likely never heard those words from his father either. I guess that such an act would be seen as a sign of weakness and diminish his authority. Unless we are perfect parents, we need to model and give the gift of apology to our children, especially at the launching stage of young adulthood. This article is about the “what” and “why “of apology to our children. Part II is about the “how” and “when” of apology.
What an Apology Means
An apology is a statement of remorse, regret, and responsibility for doing or saying something wrong or offending another person intentionally or unintentionally. We all mess up at times, not only as parents but in other relationships. Parenting is one of the challenging responsibilities we can undertake in life. At one of my workshops, a parent said – “Being a parent is an inherent guilt trip.” It will alter our ability to be loving and firm with our children if we feel guilt or shame for some action or neglect as a parent. Many parents will give in to some request or behavior because they feel guilty for some past behavior toward the child. This guilt is often the source of “enabling’ behavior. Enabling is a word used in the substance abuse field to describe actions by a parent, family member, or friend who rationalizes, excuses, or aids someone’s irresponsible behavior. We can’t free our kids to be responsible if we don’t free ourselves of guilt that causes our enabling reaction. To apologize is to free ourselves of the past and ensure our kids will take responsibility for their future
Sitting across from a close friend whose adult children were are not speaking to him, he said these words- “I did the best I could?” Did you ever hear those words or say them yourself? None of us have done the best we could. We can all look back and identify mistakes made, failures on our part to be loving, overreactions to misbehavior, and under-reactions to achievements or just plain not being there for our kids when they needed us. This “did my best “ statement often relieves our guilt because we believed we tried. But trying and having the best intentions doesn’t relive parents from apologizing for actions a young adult has experienced as hurtful. If we are willing to say ”I’m sorry “ when we bump into someone in the grocery line unintentionally, how much more should we be willing to apologize for unintentional harm with our children. An apology is what we do to address our past and heal our guilt and shame, and it is what we do to redress the grievance that our young adult may feel that keeps them enmeshed in resentment toward us. An apology is a gift we can share with our kids.
Why is it so Hard to Apologize to our Kids?
Some old school thinking may still be operative in that we think it will make us look weak or lose our authority. It’s not an admission of failure as a parent but an acknowledgment that we’re human and make mistakes. Sometimes our anger, resentment, or even pride causes us to resist apologizing. Although our kids at any age have to be accountable for their behavior, it doesn’t excuse us from apologizing for our actions. I tell parents to be the bigger person and apologize first. Some parents think that if I apologize, my kids will use this against me in future arguments or demands. We have to take the high road, be courageous, and overcome these barriers if we want to build a better relationship with our kids.
When parents apologize to their kids, at any age, you are giving them the following additional gifts. First, you honestly acknowledge your shortcomings and invite your kids to do the same. Second, you model humility and transparency, which are traits we want to cultivate in our children. Third, you take responsibility for your acts and say to your young adult – “It’s not you. It’s me.” Fourth, through empathizing with your young adult on their feelings of hurt, you make a heart to heart connection with them that can restore the relationship. Relationships are inherently reciprocal. If we reach out to our kids in love with sincere remorse and desire to make things right by apologizing, we invite our kids to do the same.
Apology is a gift we can share.
For further help with the parental gift of apology, check out my book Apology: The Gift We Give Our Young Adults.