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It's OK To Tell Your Children You're Sorry

It's OK To Tell Your Children You're Sorry

The Story

Recently, my five-year-old son presented me with a great opportunity to practice what I preach. I was in charge of getting him ready for school and to the bus, on time. Normally this would be a fairly joyful experience because, of my four kids, he is really the most independent – the task basically consists of asking him if he brushed his teeth, providing his favorite morning food and beverage and walking him to the bus in perfect Colorado weather, receiving the most loving hug available on the planet and waiving goodbye while a single tear roles down my right cheek. On this particular morning however, he saw fit to communicate to me that he was still adjusting to kindergarten and would like just a little more special attention from me. He did this by saying that he would not put on his shoes because the shoelaces were too long. I suggested he wear one of his other pairs of shoes, and followed up with a couple other quick fixes, completely missing his cry for nurturing. We were running out of time fast and in the interest of efficiency, I demanded he put his shoes on immediately and follow me out the door. Apparently this didn't meet his needs either because he only became more adamant until I yelled at him and took away all of his privileges for a year.

The Point

By apologizing to your kids when you mess up, you will not undermine your authority, you will not come off as a weak parent and you will not lose their adulation and respect. Apologizing is the act of an adult and when you do it skillfully, you model adult behavior for your children. The word “adult” is derived from the Latin adolescere, “to grow up”. To be an adult, this implies, is to never stop growing up. We think of manhood or womanhood as achievements that we mark by reaching static milestones like living independently, having a career, and so on. Adulthood rather is the endless process of continuous maturation that comes from acknowledging our developmental holes, opening up to the truth of them and acting to learn from them. Imagine if in addition to making sure our kids learn math, science and chores, we also demonstrate for them the values that make us life long practitioners of openness, honesty, humility, and maturity. It also requires a special kind of fearlessness and strength to tell your child that you have acted in a way that is inconsistent with your intentions and that you regret it – it is difficult enough to do it with a spouse or friend or co-worker.

A Learning Moment

When we screw up and act toward a child in a way that undermines our own values, it is an opportunity to connect with our child in a meaningful way and under circumstances where they are not at fault – too often our only teaching moments with our kids are when they do something we don't approve of. Here we can talk about our values in a way that is not lecturing – I can speak about how I have a strong intention to be respectful and to help him through difficult situations, and that I failed to live up to those intentions when I spoke to him in that harsh tone. They learn at least three important things with one very simple apology: 1) that we love them and that our intentions toward them are positive and caring, 2) the value of respect or other ideal that we want to share with them, and 3) that we are not perfect and that it is possible to learn from our mistakes and deepen our relationships in the process.
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