Have you ever been compelled to apologize? As in, “Tell your brother you’re sorry for taking his Transformer?” How did that work out? Did you feel sorry? I didn’t. After all, he said that his Optimus Prime was better than my stupid GoBot (remember GoBots?). I didn’t feel apologetic. I felt hurt. So when I said, “Sorry,” it came out just as lame and insincere as it felt.

Why do we do this, as parents? I’m thinking about the very useful Four Questions, from the training given by Parenting Now in Eugene. They go like this:

  1. What do I want my child to learn?
  2. Is what I’m doing teaching that?
  3. Are there any negative results from it?
  4. If so, what can I do differently?

Let’s run through it. When I tell my child to apologize for something, what do I want them to learn? I guess I want them to feel sorry, right? I’m trying to instill a sense of right and wrong. But I also want them to know what to do when they cause harm (or perceived harm) to someone else, and to expect the same in return. Fine. So far, so good.

So, is directing the child to apologize accomplishing that? I remember well enough the feeling. Even on the offending end of things, I still felt wronged. No sincerity there. Could it be that the feeling doesn’t come on demand?

Is my child learning the etiquette of apology? Maybe. But what’s more important here? Aren’t we teaching the lesson that we should expect an apology more than how to give one?

Negative results? I didn’t feel sorry. I wanted, even more, to throw that Transformer out the window. And I felt put upon and judged.

Okay, so we know what we want to teach. Is there a better way?

There is. It’s called modeling. If we want our kids to learn to apologize, we’ve got to show them how to do it.

Fortunately, there’s a great place to practice telling our children that we’re sorry. It’s called real life.

Wait, why would we, as parents, apologize to our children? Aren’t we supposed to be the authority here? Haven’t we used “because I’m the parent, that’s why” as evidence to back up a claim? Doesn’t being sorry mean that we have made a mistake, that we don’t have everything figured out all the time, that we occasionally slip up?

Exactly. And our children know how it feels to slip up (probably far more than we realize). And more importantly, they will appreciate it when we acknowledge and own up to our own foibles. Apologizing to our children shows them how to deal with mistakes and with behavior that they (and we) know was not appropriate. Once they are given the opportunity to forgive a very human parent, they will feel how important it is to say they’re sorry.

Try it sometime. Don’t worry: there’s no need to create a situation in which to apologize. It’ll come up.