You can read Part 1 of this post to see when I think it’s inappropriate to apologize to your kids. You don’t have to agree, but I think it’s a debate worth having. You can also listen to my radio interview on the topic of parenting and confession.
Apologize to your kids (when they’re big)
As our kids make the trek into adulthood, it’s important they understand their parents aren’t perfect. They’re going to be dealing with their own imperfections and the natural consequences in a new way as they become responsible for themselves. They may feel unsafe talking to you about those struggles if you’ve worked hard to maintain a perfect image, so now is the time to help them see you as a person like them. Your child may also now have the wisdom to address some of the things you did in the past that were hard for them. Don’t be stubborn when you realize you may have misjudged a situation. This is now the time to take ownership and admit that you didn’t always know the right way to handle each situation, but your heart’s desire was to do the right thing in love. Kids need to see the grace you give them comes from the grace you’ve received. Now is the time to apologize.
I’m not saying you need to wait until they’re eighteen. Just a couple weeks ago I had a talk with my six year-old. We were looking at pictures from when he was two and I told him, “Josh, I used to be pretty hard on you when you were two. I thought you were being naughty, but now I know that’s just how two year-olds act sometimes. Do you forgive me?” He said, “Mom, I always forgave you.” I could have cried. He used the past tense. He had already forgiven me before I asked for it because he knew I loved him and I wasn’t perfect. This is the foundation I’m trying to instill in my kids so as they grow and separate themselves from me we can openly and respectfully discuss our struggles. He’s not at the point yet where it would be wise to regularly have those conversations, but I want to be investing in a relationship of safety and trust that gets us to that point as he gets more mature.
Part of apologizing is being a role-model for your children of how to handle your failing. There’s got to be a lot of forgiveness in your home and you can’t allow yourself to sit in shame when you’ve made a mistake. It’s okay for them to know you and your spouse don’t always agree and you have struggles within your marriage or else they may feel tempted to bolt at the first sign of trouble when they get married. If you want them to keep from feeling debilitating guilt when they make mistakes as parents, be sure they know you made your share, too.
It’s important that these conversations are happening in the context of a trusting relationship. The bond you’ve built during those early years will now serve you well as you peel back the layers to help your kids see that you are in fact a real person. Hopefully that honesty with them will help you navigate some of those teenage conflicts as they see you as a person who can have their feelings hurt and who will at times make wrong decisions, but can admit their mistakes and apologize.
Of course this all has to happen appropriately. This is not open season on your imperfections. This is not permission for your kids to be rude, hurtful, or treat you like a buddy. Some kids may not be ready to handle this kind of discourse and you need to know your kids well enough to anticipate when they’re mature enough to handle these conversations without trying to exploit your weaknesses or talk you out of decisions they aren’t happy with. It’s a fine balance to achieve and there are likely to be missteps in the process.
So for those of you thinking, “What does she know? She just has little kids.” (Of course you are all too nice to be thinking that, but I am kind of a jerk and I would totally be thinking that right now) A lot of my feelings and thoughts about how to handle apologizing to your older kids are based on two things: my experience as a housemom of teen boys, and my own upbringing.
We worked with both little boys and big boys and the way we handled conflict with them had to be much different. Obviously, there were some uniquenesses in working with kids you weren’t able to build that trust with when they were little. This made it even more important for us to have authenticity with our older kids who were very soon going to be adults themselves. If we pretended we didn’t have flaws, how would they learn how to handle theirs? We had to be very firm and confident at first to help them feel safe with us as authority figures worth respecting, but we wanted them to know we were also human. We had times where we needed to apologize to those boys and it was humbling, for sure. It was tough to tell ourselves we didn’t have to always be right, but rewarding when we were able to have one of those genuine moments with our kids. It built trust with them when they knew we were willing to listen to them and rethink decisions that might have been made in haste. We so desperately needed those older boys to be on our team and not be our adversaries, and one good way to do that was to be openly human. It’s harder to fight with someone when you know they’re being open about their failings and open to your input (when it’s expressed appropriately).
An example from my upbringing
I remember two really great conversations with my dad that helped me realize he wasn’t perfect. There was a time when I was 18 that I was having a lot of conflict with my mom over a couple issues. I talked to my dad assuming he’d probably tell me to be more respectful and that he wouldn’t tolerate that kind of talk about my mom. Instead, he told me how those issues had been frustrating for him, too. He told me to think about it from a different perspective- the same personality traits we got frustrated about had huge upsides we both benefitted from. It was shocking to me to hear my dad acknowledge some issues in their marriage and confirm that my mom could sometimes be difficult, but it helped me to appreciate both of them more because they were working through those things. It also helped me be more forgiving of my mom and accept that she was just a person like me and didn’t need to be held to a standard of perfection. If my dad had responded to my complaints with hardness, I would have continued to feel bitter towards both of them. If he had responded with his own complaints about my mom and no attempt at helping me change my perspective, I would have felt worried about their marriage and insecure about my dad’s ability to love me in spite of my flaws. I lead my dad into a parenting minefield, but I think he listened to God’s leading and handled it in the way that was best for me and not just self-protective or getting things off his chest.
The other conversation with my dad happened when I was in college. I had been struggling with some issues about feeling loved. I was coming to realize that some of my difficulty in accepting God’s love for me came from feeling like my dad hadn’t expressed much love for me in my childhood. He came from a very reserved, strict, Mennonite family and expressions of love weren’t really their strong suit, although they absolutely did love each other and love God. It was an amazing moment of healing with my dad when he acknowledged that to me. He told me it was hard for him to express love and he was sorry he hadn’t done a better job. He said he realized I needed him to be more expressive and he hoped I could forgive him for not doing that in my childhood. Of course I could forgive him. It helped me to understand he didn’t think he was perfect and that while we all look to our dads as representatives of what God is like, they are going to fail us. It helped me differentiate between the role of father and the role of God in my life, which has had benefits both in my faith and in my relationship with my dad. My dad is still not the most affectionate guy (except with his grandkids, which totally makes up for anything else) and it’s been helpful for me to learn to accept him as he is. . . and to realize in a lot of ways I’m just like him.
So what’s the summary here? It’s so important that we be able to be honest with our kids about our struggles. It’s just important that we do it in the right way at the right time.