Love means always having to say you’re sorry. Couples get this. They understand apologies are necessary in order to ensure they keep doing stuff like having sex and not sleeping on the couch. Parents, however, no matter how often they say sorry to each other, are often loathe to extend the courtesy of an apology to their kids. Apologies, after all, can erode authority, and making amends via gifts produces more consistent results. But there’s a practical reason for showing remorse: Unapologetic parents raise unapologetic kids.
“What we’re doing as parents is teaching kids how to be good human beings,” says Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “It doesn’t happen through lectures, but what they actually experience.”
Markham explains that when a kid has a parent that never apologizes, they’re likely to conclude that apologies are unimportant. And that learning sticks, even if a parent consistently insists that their child apologizes to siblings or a friend. A sorry-less parent shows by example that apologizing causes a person to lose status or prestige. Kids, in turn, learn that sorries are a bad thing.
“By modeling an apology we’re saying one of the most meaningful things in life is your connection with other humans with whom you share a bond of love,” says Markham.
But parents screw up all the time. If they’re not stumble-bumming around and breaking toys, they’re forgetting to read a story, or leaving the juice in the kitchen, or forgetting to buy more goldfish crackers. Apologizing for all of those things would be pretty exhausting. It’s not necessary, but Markham suggests that it might actually be the easiest approach.
“In fact, I would advocate for apologizing for small things so it feels less loaded,” she explains. Still, she notes that apologies don’t have to be some heartfelt, eye-to-eye concession full of weight and portent. In fact, it only has to be three words: “Oops, I’m sorry.”
This approach is effective because it acknowledges that kids and adults perceive social interactions in very different ways because of their very different brains. As a kid grows, the small slights, like a change of plan or a forgotten promise, are regarded as full-on betrayal. There’s a reason for this: Children lack the executive functions to regulate emotions because their prefrontal cortex is still under construction. Some children overreact and it’s important to put the brakes on that, but an upset kid is probably not showing signs of being “spoiled,” just symptoms of neurological development.
“At that point, you do have to acknowledge the kid’s feelings with the apology,” says Markham. “You’re not just doing it to make them feel better. You’re helping them express themselves and solve the problem.”
Suddenly the apology becomes a normalized courtesy. It becomes an acknowledgment that something was missed and that’s totally okay because people aren’t perfect. In that environment, imperfection and graciousness are not at odds. Neither are conflict and love.
Parents can start this trend as early as toddlerhood. For the twos and threes, communication barriers present natural instances for conflict. As a kid struggles to show a parent they want, it’s easy for an adult to get frustrated as they try to address a kid’s desires (You want the red one? The blue one? The cookie? What!?). But once the toy or snack is retrieved, Markham notes that there’s a fine opportunity for parents to acknowledge the difficulty of the situation, with a simple “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand.” She notes that this isn’t some major issue. So no need to invest in guilt. The point is making the “sorry” part of life.
Markham also suggests that parents fight the urge to buy their kids off. As tempting as it might be to throw candy or cheap toys at the problem, it’s not really teaching them right values.
“Buying people off is not a message we want to give kids,” says Markham. “You want to make an emotional repair.”
Because the important part of apologizing to a kid has nothing to do with redress. It’s about repairing the perceived rupture in the relationship while teaching them empathy and grace. It’s an act of love.