“Get off the kitchen counter.”
In and of itself that doesn’t seem like such a bad statement when your twin toddlers are standing on the granite countertop lobbing crayons into your newly-filled coffee cup. I left out all the choice adjectives between “the” and “kitchen.” But I yelled it – yelled it eight decibels too loud for a rational person. Animals around the world froze to listen.
We’ve all done or said something that merits an apology to our kids. We’ve yelled too loudly, reacted too harshly, lost our minds in the grocery store, the park, the play gym. Psychologist Michael Thompson says, “A lot about being a parent is managing feelings of helplessness,” to which I give a church-style hallelujah and amen. Half the time I feel like they’re driving the car and I’m the old lady in the back seat yelling for them to pull over.
I don’t want my parenting to be reactionary. And when it is, I lose my temper – like a kid. But I want to make amends like an adult. Thompson goes on to say that, “kids often enjoy nothing better than for their parents to be wrong — and feel validated when their parents apologize.”
They do love to watch us squirm. If apologizing is a necessary part of this parenting gig, then here’s how to make it count:
1 | Say the words
In order for an apology to count, you actually have to say the words. It’s easy to scoot it into a corner by re-directing their attention. Kids are easy like that. You can tell a joke or shuffle them outside and they’re off on their new trajectory. But that’s not dealing with your lapse in judgment or their hurt. You will never distill the “we all know that was wrong” vibe in the air unless you say the words, “I’m sorry.” So, say it. It’s humbling. But that’s the point. They will learn to take responsibility for their own mistakes if you do.
2 | Link the behavior to the apology
Finish the sentence, “I’m sorry for…” Their attention spans are short. If it’s been more than a minute, they’re going to need you to guide them back to the point. “I’m sorry for threatening to leave you in the car if you take your shoes off one more time. I wouldn’t actually leave you in the car.” They need to understand what precisely you are apologizing for. No, you will not abandon them and, yes, you will try to be a tiny bit less snarky about it (at least out loud).
3 | Trade emotions
This one can make you want to go ahead and put a deposit in your child’s therapy fund, but you have to ask them how they felt when you did whatever it was that warranted the apology. I’ve gotten, “You made me feel mad, Mommy” and “You hurt my feelings right here,” at which point they place their tiny hands on their hearts. That one went into my therapy fund.
Here’s where it works in your favor: You get to tell them how their behavior made you feel. “It hurts Mommy right here (points to head) and here (points to heart) when you don’t listen to me. I’m just trying to keep you happy and safe. That’s it.” In this way, they get to see that their actions and words affect you just as much as yours affect them.
4 | Take a time out
Sometimes you just can’t apologize in the moment. And it’s no good to say sorry when you’re not. We explain it to our kids all the time: “Say sorry and mean it.” I can’t mean it if I’m still spinning out about the ruined bedspread that is now a Crayola work of art and I’ve yelled hard enough to rattle my own eardrums. So, I send myself into a time out. I take a minute or five to breathe away from the maelstrom. Then I go back and apologize and so do they and we talk about all the feels and how to color…on paper.
5 | Move on
We all have the friend who can’t let go of the fact that you forgot to RSVP for their kid’s pirate birthday party or the aunt who will never forget the speeding ticket you got in her car. We all make mistakes. Kids and adults. Nobody needs a running tally of every trespass. At some point, you’ve just got to let it go and so do they. Apologize and move on.
You’re going to lose it at some point. You’re going to melt down. All the yoga or Conan O’Brien in the world is not going to keep that filter from slipping every now and then. The point is not perfection. The point is adaptation. Think of apologizing as a new craft – a skill to finesse. Depending on how little sleep you are getting or whether your kids are threenagers or teenagers, you could become the best apologizer in the world.