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Apologizing to your kids- do it

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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.

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8 Comments

  1. I completely agree with you here, except that I strongly disagree that you should only apologize to your kids for these things once they’re older. Obviously your perception of your parents as flawed people with lives outside of you changes immensely as you get older (it has only been since I became a mother that it occurred to me to wonder about how in the heck my mom even made it through the days with so. many. freakin. kids!!), but I don’t think that means that little kids don’t realize their parents are imperfect. They may not be able to articulate it in terms of sin or flaws or human nature, but I am quite sure that small children can and do feel injustice against them keenly, whether we admit to them that it is unjust or not. Josh said he always forgave you – past tense – meaning, it didn’t only just occur to him that you made mistakes at that moment when you admitted to them, years later. It is great that he had already been able to forgive you in his heart without you having apologized up to that point. But I suspect that for many kids that sense of frustration and aggravation may instead well have festered. Paul warns fathers (parents) not to exasperate/provoke to anger/embitter (depending on which passage/translation) their children. It always fascinates me that that is the command he singles out for parents – not “Parents, make your children obey you” or “Parents, don’t show any weakness in your authority” or anything else. I think refusing to acknowledge the ways you have wronged your child (which, again, even small children have a very keenly developed sense of injustice) is likely a recipe for exasperation and embitterment.

    I don’t think that it in any way undermines our parental authority to admit when we make mistakes, even to young children. If I lose my temper and am too harsh toward my three year old, I am quite sure she knows that is wrong. Why not model humility and grace and reconciliation from the very youngest of ages? Why wait to demonstrate those things until they are much older? And at any rate, if I accept the premise that small children won’t know that I’ve made a mistake because they think that their parents are perfect, that is all the more reason for me to confess my sin against them, because I don’t want my child thinking that lashing out in anger or sarcasm or impatience are perfect ways to treat other people.

    Anyway. Like I said, I totally agree with you on this post (and I pretty much agree with you on the last one as well, re: not apologizing for frivolous things, or too constantly for small decisions, or just because your child is unhappy about a reasonable parenting choice you’ve made), with the exception that I strongly feel we should apologize to even our small children, when appropriate.

    • Bethany, I think you’re right that there’s mostly agreement here, but I think a lot of our differences would hinge on the definition of “when appropriate”. For each parent that comes down to an act of submission before God about when they apologize and when they don’t. In my personal parenting experience that is not something that happens on a regular basis, but I am also not losing my temper on a regular basis. I have found it wise to wait to apologize to my kids because it is often only in retrospect that I can see where I was too harsh or where I should have been more consistent for their good. Some time also helps me get removed from the charged emotions of a situation and realize that while I had a lot of strong feelings, I didn’t actually act on those in a way that was harmful for my kids. I have a concern that as parents we are afraid of being angry or feel guilty when we have anger. I think it’s good for parents to realize that anger and sin are two different things. We don’t need to apologize to our kids for our feelings unless those feelings caused us to have sinful actions, but we often want to apologize because it would fix our feeling problem. If we spoke to our children harshly, it takes a lot of discernment to know if that is worthy of an apology. In my experience, some children benefit from “harshness”. I’m not talking about calling them names or screaming at them (again, I’m not much of an angry parent so this all has to be taken with that in mind), but there is a time for a parent to be serious and to be seriously upset. You find this especially when you have to defend one of your children from the sins of another one of your children. Your injured child needs to know you are upset by the actions that caused their pain. We aren’t all going to sound like a parenting seminar come to life all the time and I don’t think we should.
      I absolutely won’t argue with your arguments from Scripture- I’m not an idiot 🙂 I fully agree that we shouldn’t embitter our kids. We try to avoid that with love and grace and know that at times we will fail. There are lots of Biblical references to how children should behave and especially how they should treat their parents (Ephesians 6:1, Colossians 3:20, Exodus 20:12, lots of stuff in Proverbs, etc.) and I do believe some of those imply that we need to be parents worth obeying and honoring and part of our job IS to teach our kids to submit to our authority.
      I love that Josh had always forgiven me and I think that underscores that grace has to characterize our parenting relationships. He always knew he was loved and felt safe and gave me grace, just the way I love him and give him grace for the many sins that crop up without having a sit-down apology talk every time. I couldn’t even have apologized when he was two if I thought that was appropriate because it has only been years later that I’ve understood what those parenting flaws were. But I have always treated him respectfully and with kindness that has preserved our relationship in spite of my mistakes. My kids may feel a lot of things are injustice against them (especially when you have a large family and things can’t always be “fair”) and it will be a test of their character whether or not they allow that to fester. You’re right that small children have a keenly developed sense of injustice but it is often entirely self-centered. I can’t base my parenting off of what feels like injustice to my child. My hope is that as they get old enough to help us understand what they needed and how we succeeded or failed we’ll be able to talk through those things within the context of the strong relationship we’ve built. The things I may need to apologize for may be totally different than what I even anticipate because of the unique needs of each of my kids.
      Which is why I have no problem with us disagreeing on this topic. What your kids will need from you, is likely to be different from what mine need from me.

      • I don’t think it’s something that happens very often, either (though I am also not an angry parent – I don’t think I have ever really yelled yet, per se (used a frustrated/exasperated tone of voice, definitely, but actual yelling? Nope.)). Between the two of us parents, I think we have apologized to our three year old perhaps four times in her life so far. I don’t think you need to apologize for each foible and misstep, but there are times (and they are different for each parent and child) when you have stepped over a line, and you know it, and your kid knows it, and that is the time to apologize. I agree that age two isn’t the time for more philosophical parenting apologies, like “I’m sorry I expect too much of you just because you’re the oldest child and I don’t know better” because, like you said, that sort of thing appears in hindsight and it would be over the head of a preschooler. But “I’m sorry that when I was frustrated earlier I squeezed your arm too tight and yanked you out of the chair too hard” IS the kind of thing I think is appropriate to apologize for to a young child. Again, I don’t think those apologies should, in a normal household, need to be frequent occurrences. If they are, you probably have parenting problems beyond whether or not you decide to apologize to your child.
        So, having said all that, I don’t know if we still are in disagreement or not, but if so, I’m fine agreeing to disagree on this one. 🙂

        • Four times?! Oh no, we are not agreeing to disagree, we are agreeing. Four times isn’t frequent or frivolous. You have probably picked times where you really knew you crossed the line and you’re owning it. I totally support that and do it myself with probably about the same frequency you’re describing. I don’t think an apology time that averages out to about once a year is going to damage your child’s trust in your decision making or make them think you’re a peer. Soldier on, Mama!

          • Um, I have this good friend–yeah, friend–who has yelled many times, gets angry kinda quickly, threw a backpack on the floor in frustration just yesterday, and is currently using the word “damn” too often around little ears because it doesn’t seem all that bad anymore.

            You two are damn saints. And it kinda pisses off my friend.

            😉

          • Good thing your friend has YOU to keep her on track. 🙂

          • My husband and I are two super-mellow adults with one super-mellow kid. It doesn’t exactly take sainthood to simply act out your temperaments. 🙂

  2. Funny, I have a friend just like Rebecca’s. Only my friend always thought she was even-keeled until she had kids, then they showed her just how short her fuse could be!

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