My son came up to me the other day to tell me that one of his family members had pushed him and didn’t say sorry. The family member was within earshot and came right over to say that “No, no, no, I didn’t do that,” making my son feel embarrassed for telling me. It hurt me to see that my son was conflicted with telling the truth, feeling embarrassed, and learning that apologizing was seen as a ‘bad thing’ all within one single event. It was also a tough situation for me as I was then faced with criticizing an adult, taking the word of a preschooler over them, and scolding someone that wasn’t my child. It certainly wasn’t an easy situation for anyone, but what parenting moment is?
Look at Apologies in Your House
I recall when I was a child. I was no stranger to mistakes and I certainly stole a toy or two from my siblings. The instant I made a mistake, I was chastised for an apology and was expected to deliver one on the spot. Children today are treated no different but when an adult makes a mistake, especially wronging a child, they often delay or don’t offer an apology. The reasoning could be embarrassment, believing that it was too small of a mistake for an apology or that no one would notice. The reason could also be that they believe they are too old and wise for apologies or that children aren’t smart enough to understand the mistake made. It could also be due to adults believing that apologies are a sign of weakness and that children would no longer respect them or would start to take advantage of them.
Whatever the reasoning, the opposite is the case. All mistakes warrant an apology, children really do see everything, no one is ever too old to make a mistake, children are very intelligent and empathy is build right into them, and children do not view our actions as signs of weakness, only as moments to learn from and mimic.
The Importance of Apologizing
There are numerous benefits to apologizing to a child, so many that I’ve barely succeeded at summarizing them into a blog.
First of all, children watch our every move and aspire to be just like us. They learn much more from our actions than from our words. Recall building your child’s foundation, as discussed in so many other blogs? The ones about dental hygiene, sports, or proper nutrition? Empathy and kindness are no different when it comes to building connections and memories in your child’s behavioural blueprint. Your child will mimic your actions, so when you’ve used strong language, broken promises, or even accidentally bumped them to the ground, they won’t just remember what you did but how to responded after the fact. Build the blueprint to include a genuine apology, being the role-model for them and leading by example. It’s a guarantee they will use your guiding principle when they make their own mistakes.
Genuinely apologizing to children also strengthens the bond we share with them and lets them know we are listening and care about them and their feelings. They are people too and grow from positive self-esteem knowing that you think of them as an equal. This gives them, and you, the knowledge that everyone has worth and is equally human, no matter the virtue of their age or relationship to one another. By watching you apologize, your child learns to distinguish right from wrong. You also grow in the eyes of your child, and that cements the bond of mutual respect that you share.
Apologizing to children also helps them learn to take responsibility for their actions, just as you have done by modelling a sincere apology. It teaches them the virtue of honesty and how to be accountable. When adults accept their follies and apologize, it sends a very strong message – that everyone makes mistakes and the right way to make amends is to accept it and do what it takes to make it right. Hiding a mistake or lying about it sends the worst of messages to a child. It tells them you are above others and they will mimic this behaviour and feelings when interacting with others. Instead, be honest, own the mistake, apologize genuinely, and make amends by resolving it. No one is perfect, so show your child how you rise after you’ve made a mistake. Take responsibility, and be honest and accountable.
If you hadn’t guessed it yet, there are also benefits for the parent who practices apologies. It builds our self-esteem too by accepting one’s mistakes and doing the right thing by making amends. It also presents opportunities for adults to learn and grow. If you find yourself apologizing, take a moment to learn from the experience, whether that be learning how not to make a similar mistake or how to make the most of your apology.
What Not to Teach a Child
What your child will learn if you don’t apologize for a folly is shocking and not worth the risk. They will make the assumption that apologizing means you’ve done something bad, or that you are bad. They will assume there’s a feeling of shame attached to apologizing and will be hesitant to apologize when they make their own mistakes. They will also learn that it’s okay to damage a relationship and not acknowledge it or try to repair it. It’s likely that they won’t show or feel respect for others. They will also assume that when you apologize, you lose your status. A parent or adult has the most status in a child’s life and if you are scared to apologize for fear of showing weakness, a child will also fear the same and not show remorse. Lastly, a child will learn that apologizing is something you wouldn’t want to do unless you were forced to. This leads them to being dishonest and lack responsibility and accountability.
Don’t underestimate your child, they certainly do learn by example, so avoid making the additional mistake of not apologizing. You will gain more by taking the time and effort to do the right thing for your child.
How to Give a Genuine Apology
Apologize easily and often. Even for very small “Oops” moments where a short “Sorry!” is appropriate, be sure to admit it readily. Small apologies like this show your child that apologies are just a part of life, as are mistakes that accompany them. Anytime you act in a way that you wouldn’t want your child to, like accidentally interrupting someone who is speaking, offer an apology to show your child that it’s easy and natural to do the right thing.
“Oops! Sorry bud, I didn’t see you there!”
“Oops, sorry for interrupting you!”
Always apologize when you lose your cool. Grown-ups have tantrums too and it’s critical that we explain that we had an emotion, but the action that accompanied the emotion was not acceptable. There’s no need to apologize for setting limits, but it is important to enforce limits with a calm, respectful manner.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you for not staying in your bed. That was my mistake and I should not have gotten angry. I do need you to stay in bed at bedtime. How can I make it easier for you to stay in bed?”
If your child thinks something was a big deal and wants an apology, acknowledge that, even if you don’t think it was. There will certainly be times when you think an action was worth an apology but your child doesn’t. You will want to role model good behaviour at all times to ensure your child respects the feelings of others.
“I’m very sorry for stepping on your play-doh ball. I did not see it and I’m sorry. I know you’re upset. Is there a way I can help fix it?”
By apologizing for all shapes and sizes of mistakes, this also ensures your child will feel comfortable telling you any mistake that he or she thinks is afoot. This was particularly helpful to me as I struggled with leaving my children at dayhomes. Knowing that my child was comfortable telling me everything and never felt embarrassed to come to me was a huge emotional load off of my shoulders.
Also, always resist the urge to blame. Many of us start off by apologizing and then veering off to an excuse, like why you did what you did. This normally comes in the form of using “but.”
“I should not have thrown out your toy, but you should not have thrown it at your brother.”
Everything that was said before the “but” no longer has any meaning. Your child will not learn how to properly apologize without strong examples. It’s important to deliver a full apology after describing what happened.
“You threw a toy at your brother. Then I threw the toy in the garbage. I’m sorry, I should not have yelled at you or thrown out your toy. I am very sorry for yelling and for throwing out your toy. Please go apologize to your brother.”
It’s a very good strategy to explain the events leading up to a mistake, but do not let the explanation ruin a good apology by making excuses. A child needs to know that what you did was a mistake if they are to learn what they did was a mistake. By saying you threw out their toy because they deserved it for throwing it at their brother, they will in turn rationalize their mistake by thinking their brother deserved it.
The Take Away
When I was faced with my difficult situation, I am very proud to say that I took my son’s side, knowing what I know of the importance of apologies. I calmly told the accused that a real apology was required because it will show my son that his feelings are important and that all mistakes, even accidents, warrant an apology. It had the added benefits of showing the adults that mistakes do not have to be a big deal and that the littlest of children learn from the behaviours of adults. I was proud to stick up for my child and teach everyone involved, including him, that he has value.