As parents, we all want our children to grow up to be responsible citizens and good people. We want them to learn to feel, think and act with respect for themselves and for other people. We want them to pursue their own well-being, while also being considerate of the needs and feelings of others.
As they navigate life, children are bound to make mistakes – we all do, and when we apologise, we re-establish the dignity of the injured party. When parents recognise and own up to faults, it helps children feel better, and makes them realise the importance of saving a relationship. When they start recognising that genuine apologies help repair relationships, they understand the need to be responsible with their social ties.
Here is a step-by-step guide to set an example with genuine apologies to children.
Recognise your mistake and understand what you did wrong
Let us consider two scenarios.
Your child made a mistake, and you scolded them. Your child is hurt, perhaps even when what you said was correct. It is not just words; it is the body language and the facial expressions, too. All of it makes a child feel terrible.
Now imagine a case where you had promised your child you would take them out, but you became terribly busy with your work. At the end of the day, your child is sulking and not eating dinner. You get angry and tell the child loudly not to trouble you.
In both scenarios, we as parents, may have hurt our child. One way we reason with this is that as grown-ups we have a right to be angry and express the feeling in words. We may feel that as parents we do not need to apologise. But if we wish to connect stronger with our children, we need to show them that apologising is the right way forward. Identifying what hurt and noting never to repeat the hurtful behaviour or remarks is the ideal modelling method.
When parents apologise, they become role models for a child. They give the pathway for a child to emulate. When a child makes a mistake, the child expresses their emotions and are open to apologise. The apology is sincere and on time. A sincere apology shows. Our words, body language, and how the apology is delivered all factor into its sincerity. The best apologies are offered in person whenever possible.
Sometimes we delay saying a sorry, as we are reconsidering our outlook on a mistake. Once we realise our mistake, it’s important to apologise to the offended person as soon as we can. Yes, apologies can be awkward, and they should be, so that we avoid repeating the same mistake. But delaying an apology can cause more damage, making the young injured party think we, as parents, are ignoring the issue. Let the healing begin, and swiftly.
Admitting to a mistake is often looked at as a reflection of our character. But what’s more revealing is how we handle making an apology. When we take ownership of a mistake, we avoid placing blame elsewhere. Blaming the weather, lack of sleep, or someone else involved in the circumstances makes for a weak apology as a parent. This leads to cracks in trust in a parent-child relationship. Our apology should include the steps we’re going to take to prevent future mistakes. The circumstance will dictate what we need to do. If we’ve spoken hurtful words in anger, we may need to practice new techniques for stressful situations or even seek therapy.
When we apologise to a young child or a teen, they will want to express their feelings about the situation. Let them talk. Listen to their feedback. We, as parents, may learn something new about the situation or other ways to correct it.
Don’t expect a return apology
It is not about who has the last word, or about who could force an apology, or who’s ego was soothed on hearing one. An apology is a genuine feeling of regret. It is a way to try and mend a relationship with a promise that such incidents would not be repeated in the future. An apology now is not a pass to continue repeating a mistake in the future. It’s not a competition, either: we don’t apologise to someone, so that they apologise to us. It’s not a race to see who apologises first. A genuine apology is about accepting that we’ve made an error, and then going forth and mending the damage done.
Healing starts the moment we as parents calm down and are ready to see the scenario from both sides, and are ready to see that saying a sorry to a young child does not hamper our position as a parent. It actually builds a strong trust in the relationship. We must also realise that we are being role models for our children when we understand a mistake, accept it and apologise. We teach them to be human.
It’s normal to want to protect children from the pain of making mistakes, but children need to make mistakes to grow, become resilient. This can impact their development of emotional management and self-soothing skills. Most parents wish for perfection, yet mistakes and pitfalls will come along the way. Parenting demands constantly evolving, changing and adaptation.
Effective parenting can be achieved by recognising common parenting mistakes and trying to prepare to address issues, to be open to recognise when one needs to take a different strategy or ask for help.
Dr. Aarti Bakshi is a mother of three and a developmental psychologist and SEL (social, emotional learning) consultant at SAAR Education, a Mumbai-headquartered consortium that offers educational resources for children.