Should You Make Your Kid Apologize?
In a recent mother’s forum, a mom asked, “What do you do to get your kid beyond just a hollow apology when they're acting up (such as hitting their sibling or whatever not-great behavior they have)?”
That’s a good question. As adults we know that a genuine apology is a powerful tool in building and maintaining relationships. It represents a desire to repair and sustain the connection. It is an acknowledgement of our own part in hurting someone—whether or not the offense was committed knowingly (or even through no fault of our own).
The Hollow Apology
We also know that as adults we can too easily issue the false apology—the excuse for why we are going to fail (or have failed) to meet our commitment. The false apology is tricky. If, for example, we decide that we’d really rather hang out at home one day than schlep to the park to meet friends, we might tell our friends that we think our child is coming down with something and we don't want to expose everyone else. Why do we do that? Because it is a reason that seems like it will cause less fuss and get less judgement (no parent wants his kids to get sick unnecessarily). If we just come out and say, “It’s not worth the energy it takes to pack the kid in and out of the car and go someplace,” we risk sending the message, “You’re not worth (or your kid is not worth) the energy it takes to get a kid out of the house, into the car seat and to the park.”
How Can We Ask Our Kids to Be Genuine When We Are Not?
My point here is that we make less-than-genuine apologies all the time. Often we do it to smooth things over and maintain the appearance of the connection. If adults do it too often, the apologies will feel less than genuine even when they are. How heart-felt your apology is is often a question of 1) how emotionally honest you are being with yourself and 2) how much relationship capital you are willing to lose.
Pinpointing Your Own Emotions
Sometimes it takes us a while to pinpoint our own motivations because we haven’t really checked in fully with our own feelings. Perhaps you tell your friends that your child is sick not because you really feel like staying home but because you are hurt at an off-hand comment the friend made that felt like a condemnation of how you handled something. Truly, even as adults we don’t always make the connection (I think Friend A doesn’t admire me as a parent=I don’t want to meet her in the park). So we make the excuse and apologize for not meeting Friend A. Ideally, if we really value the friendship, once we do realize our true feelings, we will sit down and talk through our feelings/actions and make an honest request of how we would like the friendship to move forward.
The Necessary Hollow Apology
Sometimes our apologies are less than genuine because it is expedient. Telling your boss that you are missing work because your child is sick is a reason she legally has to accept. Tell your boss that you are feeling guilty because you have been spending so much time at work and are afraid that it is hurting your relationship with your child and that your child really just needs some Mommy time at home, and you risk losing your job at worst and your boss’s trust that she can count on you at best. In this case, the cost of the truth would be too great, too risky.
Where Are We Left?
Given how nuanced and tricky apologies are, then, how do we teach our children to go beyond a hollow apology? I will go into that next week. In the meanwhile, I invite you to be reflective this week of when and why you are apologizing to people. Keep a mental note of when they are genuine and when they are expedient. Be especially cognizant of this with your kids. Did you allow going to the park on the way home as a possibility and then decide you are just too tired? But did you actually tell your kids that there just wasn’t enough time? Or maybe you told the kids you were too tired but the subtext in your head was I deserve to go home and rest, I’ve been working hard all day and, besides, I didn’t really promise the park, I just thought it was a possibility. Again, it is easy to see how the apologies we make might be hollow—or at the very least less than the full truth.
Apologies are tricky! Before we start demanding that our children apologize (much less offer genuine apologies), let’s look to ourselves. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! You can respond to me by replying to this email, or post on the Joyful Parenting Facebook page.