Guess what: you're not a perfect parent, and you never will be. So you might as well learn to apologize now. And yes, I mean apologize to your child.
We grown-ups spend lots of time encouraging our kids to apologize to other kids, and trying to get our partners to apologize to us for leaving the toilet seat up. But many parents would never think of apologizing to their child for fear of appearing weak or -- gasp -- inconsistent. We are, after all, supposed to be firm. We know that children, even toddlers, feel safe when their parents are predictable and their boundaries are well-built. Yet apologies usually involve some sort of backtracking, and that would mean undoing whatever we just did: calling-off the time-out, giving back the favorite toy, etc. But isn't that the same as caving in? Won't my child think I'm a pushover?
Luckily, it's not that same thing, and your child won't think you are a pushover. He'll appreciate your apology. He'll see you as fair and trustworthy. And he'll learn through your example what it means to take responsibility for one's actions, how to make things right, and how to move forward after a dispute.
Now, our new first-time mamas will take an oath: I will NEVER, NOT EVER do any wrong -- large or small or miniscule -- to my sweet baby.
I'm sorry, but I'm here to tell you that you WILL crack over spilled milk, you will say "no" for no good reason at all. You'll overreact, you'll take "it" out on your kid, you'll hurt your child's feelings.
The question is not if you will (didn't I just say you will?), the question is what are you going to do about it.
Don't fret. It happens to the best of us! We're frustrated, overwhelmed, sleep deprived.
And so it was with me the other night. My kids asked for dessert (we only have dessert a couple of times a week.) I said no. They wailed. I dug in: NO. Then, Kid #2 reminded me: "But you said we could have dessert! Remember? In the car on the way home from school?"
Um, yeah, OK, I remember now, but still, the answer is NO. Parents reserve the right to change their minds, after all. When you're a parent, you can change your mind, too. So there.
In mad tears of frustration, Kid #2 stomped off, wailing about the unfairness of it all.
Of course, he was right. I'd broken my word. I hadn't meant to. I'd simply forgotten.
But the reason for my "firmness" was not so innocent. Truth is, I was being selfish. I didn't want to be bothered with more decisions (cookies or ice cream?), more dishes (didn't I just do those?), more stuff.I was done with parenting for the night, and wanted to get on with bedtime.
And I knew it. So I gave them dessert with a side of apology: "You're right," I said, "I'm sorry, I was being unreasonable. Do you accept my apology?" Kid #2 -- now well-trained in the art of accepting an apology, thanks to having a highly fallible mom -- smiled and hugged me: "Yes, Mom, I accept your apology."
My mother-in-law, who lives with us and was standing nearby, gave me a disapproving look. I read it to mean, "You have just shown the ultimate weakness -- you apologized to a child! You have lost all credibility as a parent!"
Indeed, I had apologized.
But far from showing weakness, having the strength to apologize to your kids teaches them several important lessons:
- It teaches them that it is OK to be wrong, as long as you make it right.
When you, the person your child admires most in this world, admits to a mistake, it gives your child permission to be imperfect. When you clean it up with an apology, you set a powerful example for how to set things straight.
- It teaches them to accept responsibility for their actions and words.
In order to apologize, a person must first accept responsibility for his or her actions. When you own up to your own mistake (small or large), you provide a concrete example of responsibility in action.
- It teaches them to be self-aware and self-reflective.
When you walk yourself back from a knee-jerk reaction, your kid sees a powerful example of emotional intelligence.
- It teaches them how to really apologize.
We ask kids to apologize to and accept apologies from other kids all the time, but usually, it is perfunctory. You: "Now, Billy, say you're sorry to Jane." Billy: "Sorry." Jane: "OK."
When you apologize in a grown up way, your child sees an example of a more heart-felt apology. He observes how your face, your body, and your voice all work together to communicate a real apology.
- It teaches them to accept an apology gracefully.
Since you are part of the problem on this one, you have the opportunity to coach your child through a typical dispute process. You can coach him on how to accept your apology, maybe by extending a handshake or hug.
You can also help him move on after the episode, and therefore learn what it means to truly forgive and forget. Sure, "forgiveness" is a big word usually reserved for more serious transgressions, but these are kids: teaching them to deal with apologies and forgiveness for small things -- like a broken promise about dessert -- sets the stage for dealing with the bigger disputes they will face later in childhood and life.
- It teaches them to assert themselves when there is real injustice.
Kids have a strong sense of fairness. If you, the parent, are generally firm and consistent, your kids have already learned not to push the envelope. They know, even before they ask the question, what your answer is likely to be. Sure, they might still ask to dress up the cat like Rudolph, just on the off-chance you will say yes, but they will not be surprised -- and will not protest too much -- when you say no.
But we also want our kids to stick up for themselves and for what is right. By demonstrating to the them that you can be reasonable and flexible, you make it safe for them to practice asserting themselves. You also help them build a good sense of judgment about what things are worth fighting for, and which are not.
- It (ironically) gives your word more weight.
When you reasonably backtrack on an unreasonable "no", it shows your kids that you are fair and just. So, the next time you say "no" and really mean it, they will be more likely to trust that you are saying no for a good, reasonable reason. You can even say to older kids, "Hey, you know I can be flexible, but this is a case where no means no. Period." (Sorry, your 3 year-old won't be impressed by this but feel assured that you are establishing a track-record that will pay big later on.)
So, try adding "heartfelt apology" to your bag of parenting tricks. And start EARLY! Your toddler or preschooler won't understand the full significance, but you will start establishing that foundation of trust and fairness from the get go.