A friend of mine faced a parenting dilemma recently when she was unable to locate her cell phone and immediately blamed her 7-year-old daughter. The girl began to defend herself, but my friend was too exasperated to listen. "How many times do I have to tell you not to take my things?" she shouted, as her daughter stormed angrily out of the room. Soon after, my friend put her hand in her jacket pocket and was both relieved and mortified to find her phone-just where she had put it when she went out walking that morning.
What's a parent to do when she finds she has wronged, hurt or embarrassed her child? Should she swallow her pride, confess her error and apologize? Or would admitting the mistake weaken her authority, cause her child to lose respect for her and call her future judgments into question?
Make Friends with Mistakes
The fact is, we all make mistakes. Far from undermining the parent-child relationship, parents actually rise in their children's estimation when they are forthright in accepting blame. Kids benefit, too. When they grow up in an environment in which mistakes are a normal part of life, children develop the courage to try new things and remain resilient in the face of difficulty or failure. The storybook educator Miss Frizzle was on to a good thing when she made mistakes central to her classroom's mission statement: "Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!" Children who learn that it is possible to recover from errors will be far more honest in admitting when they have made one.
By contrast, when parents cling to the illusion of perfection by refusing to admit their own mistakes, they create an environment in which the bar is set too high, for both their children and themselves. Kids who grow up believing that mistakes are shameful and unacceptable often become risk averse (because they can't fail if they don't try) or adept at denying or hiding their faults (tendencies they may have picked up from their parents).They also grow increasingly resentful and angry toward parents who refuse to own up to and make amends when they are in the wrong.
Model How to Take Responsibility
Children learn by observing and imitating the important adults in their lives. If we want them to accept responsibility for their actions then we must first demonstrate what genuine repentance looks like. It will take young children several years of observing parental apologies before they truly internalize this complicated social exchange.
A sincere apology requires not only finding the right words but, more importantly, finding the right feelings. As a first step, adults need to calm down, put aside their own charged emotions and consider the situation from the child's point of view. In order to be more than empty words, an effective apology should include an action plan for improvement and a humble request for forgiveness.
" It must have hurt your feelings when I yelled at you and falsely accused you of taking my cell phone. I was wrong and I'm so sorry. I will remember this next time I'm tempted to jump to conclusions before listening to you. Will you forgive me?"
It is important to remember that an apology is not a defense, a sneak attack or a manipulation. The words "but you" do not belong in an apology, as in "I'm sorry I lost my temper but you dawdle so much it drives me crazy." Most of the time, when we say we are sorry without making excuses, our children will immediately chime in with "That's OK." With increasing maturity, they will freely acknowledge their own fault in the situation. This mutual admission of responsibility helps clear the air, clean the slate and strengthen trust between parent and child.
The Benefits of Apologizing
Scientific research has associated apology with measurable health benefits. A study conducted in 2002 by researchers from Hope College and Virginia Commonwealth University noted that heart rate, blood pressure, sweat levels and facial tension all decreased when subjects imagined they were receiving an apology.
These findings are easy to replicate at home. A carefully thought out and sensitively delivered parental apology can go a long way toward undoing the negative effects of unkind words or thoughtless actions. In the short run, children are visibly calmed and soothed. In the longer run, they are taught an invaluable life skill.
Apologizing can be a humbling experience of growth. It forces us to face up to our faults. But the words are only as good as the efforts toward improvement that follow them. If nothing changes and we find ourselves apologizing for the same things over and over again-yelling, being late, breaking promises, changing plans-it's a warning sign that we need to examine the underlying causes of our behavior and devise a strategy for improving the situation.
Contrary to the sentiment expressed in the 1970 film "Love Story," love really does mean saying you're sorry, because all loving relationships are composed of imperfect human beings. When parents take the lead in apologizing, they demonstrate two crucial family values: that they are people of integrity and that their children are worthy of respect.
Five Steps of an Effective Apology
Summon compassion. Put yourself in your child's shoes and consider the impact of your actions or words.
Express regret. Focus on your own behavior and describe it specifically in order to demonstrate that you understand the harm you have done.
Make amends. Fix what you broke. Use kind words and affectionate touch to soothe hurt feelings.
Offer a plan for improvement. State the steps you will take to avoid this mistake in the future.
Request forgiveness. Give your child the power to restore the relationship as a demonstration of trust and true contrition.
Robyn Des Roches is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) and a leader of PEP's "Parenting Preschoolers" classes. PEP offers classes and workshops to parents of children ages 2 ½ to 18, including "Setting Limits for Young Children" on November 29. PEPparent.org