Take a Closer Look
To apologize properly is to be vulnerable, and that takes courage. We can’t always predict the kind of response we’ll get — whether harsh and scolding, cool and indifferent, or loving and accepting. Therein lies the risk: we don’t know how our apology will be received. This can be challenging for adults, but especially for children. Kids will benefit from seeing such vulnerability modeled for them, which is what the father does in Making Amends. His apology includes four key elements that define a proper amends:
Many parents think it’s wrong to be vulnerable with children by acknowledging our mistakes. They say it puts us in a one-down position whereby kids lose respect for us and see us as weak, or use our vulnerability against us. In fact, the opposite is true: children feel good about us when we acknowledge our mistakes and recognize their right to be treated properly. This is modeled when the father acknowledges it was a mistake to call his daughter a “spoiled brat.”
Further, when we acknowledge our errors simply and directly, without berating ourselves, we teach children that mistakes need not be a reason to beat ourselves up, to think of ourselves as defective or less than others. We want our kids to feel unhappy with their behavior when they’ve done wrong (which triggers healthy guilt), rather than unhappy with who they are as a person (which triggers toxic shame). That’s the message the father in Making Amends conveys when he says, “I never like being unkind to you — I feel guilty afterwards.”
Dad makes clear that although his daughter spoke to him in a provocative way, her words don’t justify him speaking unkindly to her. In this way, he takes full responsibility for his behavior and offers no excuses; he doesn’t blame his daughter for his own actions.
Offer An Apology of Words
Dad apologizes to his daughter specifically for what he did (“I want to apologize for saying you were a spoiled brat”) rather than the common error of apologizing for how she felt (“I’m sorry you felt that way”). Afterwards, he asks if she will be able to accept his apology. (Yes, she says.) This is how he teaches her that a complete process of amends includes the acceptance of an apology by the person who has been wronged. Through this lens, receiving an apology is more than a passive activity; the recipient must consider whether the apology seems sincere, and whether to accept it. Through dad’s apology and his daughter’s acceptance of it, the injury to their relationship is visibly repaired (see Teach Forgiveness).
Offer an Apology of Actions
It is not always enough to say “I’m sorry.” Sometimes an apology also requires an action to underscore the sincerity of the healing effort. Dad models this when he asks “is there anything I can do or say to make you feel better right now?” With this statement, he lets his daughter know that he does not expect her to feel better with his words alone, that he knows it may be necessary for him to change his behavior for a full repair. And even though the daughter states that nothing else is needed, the impact of the father’s offer is likely still felt.
An invaluable by-product of making amends to our children is that it becomes a template by which they learn to apologize to us — or anyone — when they’ve caused harm in a relationship. It’s an invaluable life skill that will serve them well forever (see When We Apologize).
Read Tips of the Month for Families
Talking to Kids You Love is written and created by Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., in collaboration with Marina Eovaldi, Ph.D., and Benjamin Rosen, Ph.D. The project is made possible by a generous grant from The Golub Family Foundation.