8 Reasons To Say “I’m Sorry” To Your Child
While visiting an orphanage in India (Maher Ashram), Sister Lucy told me a story about being awakened late one night by cries from the boys’ room. When she arrived, she discovered that, as they slept, someone had put hot pepper in their eyes. Sister Lucy examined and questioned each boy and found that one boy, who I will call Samar, was uninjured. Samar had been extremely physically abused and came to Maher Ashram in a troubled and untrusting state, using violence as his only form of communication. Sister Lucy asked him to apologize to the other boys and he refused. She discussed the situation with him at length, hoping to help him understand the pain he had caused and the consequences of those actions. He still refused to say “I’m sorry.” After spending time with each of the boys he had hurt, she helped them understand that his behaviors were about the pain he had suffered and continued to suffer, and she convinced each of them to apologize to Samar. One by one, they told him they were sorry for his pain. That experience permanently altered the course of his life.
Here are 8 ways genuinely saying "I'm sorry" helps our children:
1. It models acknowledgement.
No parent is perfect. As much as we may try, most of us have raised our voices (yelled!) at our kids. When that happens, we might need to take a moment to pull ourselves together. But then we need to apologize. Saying “I’m sorry” models the appropriate response to hurting someone while acknowledging our mistakes. When we do not teach acknowledgement by example, we increase the risk of raising self-centered, narcissistic people, but teaching by example encourages appropriate behaviors.
2. It sets the subsequent stage.
Have you ever watched a toddler pick up a toy phone and have the most hilariously animated and melodramatic conversation with an imaginary person on the other end? Welcome to a miniature version of yourself! As parents, we are reflections of who our children try to be and they look to us for guidance in all of their behaviors. When we consistently model the behaviors we want to see, we set the current and future stage for what is appropriate.
3. It tells them they are not alone.
Have you ever posted a really embarrassing photo of your teenager on social media without their consent? Just kidding, me neither! (For the sake of argument, let’s just say I did and my teen got really mad at me and demanded that I immediately remove the photo because all his friends are pointing and laughing at him and he really doesn’t want to go to school or out in public anymore, because I’m so lame!) The appropriate response would be, “Sweetie, I am so sorry I embarrassed you. I made a mistake. I will remove it immediately and I promise to always check with you first before I ever post another photo of you.” When children make mistakes, they often feel like those mistakes define them and that they are “bad” people. When we, as parents, apologize for our mistakes, it reminds our children that they are not the only ones who make them.
4. It teaches empathy.
A genuine apology is coupled with true empathy and shows our children that we understand them and that we care more about their feelings than we do about being right. It also creates awareness of others and of their surroundings. One summer afternoon when my parents were visiting from Alaska, we were all gathered around the television to watch a movie together when my daughter Morgan, who was then eight years old, noticed that one of the doors of the unit housing the TV was slightly blocking her grandfather’s view. Without saying a word or seeking recognition, she got up, fixed the problem and went back to her seat. I am as proud of that as I am of my 19-year-old daughter Wendy organizing our trip to India to work with destitute women and orphan children. If we teach them to notice the little things, they will accomplish greatness.
5. It helps them think about their own actions.
When my son, Thomas was in the 7th grade, he was consistently bullied by a bigger boy on the playground. It caused a lot of stress and anxiety for Thomas and was a problem that brought me to the principal’s office on more than one occasion. Thomas had long hair and was a bit of a late bloomer (he is now over 6 feet tall). One lunch period, the boy walked up to Thomas, shoved his shoulders a few times and said, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Thomas stepped back out of arms’ reach, looked him in the eye and said, “Both,” leaving the boy speechless as Thomas slowly turned and walked away. Thomas is someone who embraces his masculine and feminine sides, so the bully’s comment fell flat. This was not the end of it, though, and the situation required a couple of meetings and phone calls with the boys’ parents. I was proud of the balance Thomas achieved in standing up for himself without aggression or insult to the person bullying him. Thomas’ calm and strong demeanor eventually elicited a genuine apology from the bully.
6. It sends the message that we respect them.
Always acknowledging the feelings of our children is not giving in to everything they want. If they want something they cannot have, we can support those feelings without letting them have the thing. It is human and empathetic to say, "I'm sorry. I understand it is frustrating and disappointing to not get what you want right now. Here’s why." Age-appropriately explaining why to them, and taking whatever time necessary to do so, lets them know that we respect them. Treating them with the respect they deserve will also earn reciprocation of that respect.
7. It unloads the anger and the burden.
Anger is easier than pain, which is one of the reasons saying the words “I’m sorry” can be difficult. It is important to acknowledge our anger and allow ourselves to feel it, but holding onto it is toxic, prevents growth and keeps us trapped in dishonesty. When we apologize, we do so because we experience empathy and accountability. When we recognize our mistakes or inappropriate choices, saying the words “I’m sorry” is a healthy and direct pathway to the truth. And we can never fully give of ourselves without it.
8. It encourages forgiveness.
Apologizing to our children gives them the opportunity to forgive us, and that just might be the most powerful gift we will ever give them.