Parenting with Purpose: Perfecting the Art of the Apology

By Neil McNerney

I remember, when I was about 10 years old, playing at my friend’s house. His father lost his temper over some small issue and, a few minutes later, apologized for yelling. I was a bit stunned, because I couldn’t remember a time when my father had apologized to me. I didn’t know that fathers were capable of saying, “Sorry.” Maybe it wasn’t one of the things that the greatest generation was very great at doing, but I have vowed to do a better job of teaching my kids the art of the apology.

Like most lessons, apologies are best learned by example. The more comfortable we become at apologizing, the more likely our children will appropriately apologize.

Our children give us plenty of opportunities to apologize, especially when we lose our temper, over-punish or don’t take their feelings into account. These opportunities to apologize accomplish two things: It gives me a chance to mend any hurt in the relationship, and it shows kids the correct way to apologize.

Here are some dos and don’ts when it comes to apologies:

       Don’t: Apologize for the hurt feelings. You see this quite often in the news. “I am sorry if I offended anyone.” Or “I am sorry if I hurt anyone’s feelings.” This isn’t an apology. We can only apologize for our own actions, not someone else’s feelings. This type of apology can be easily misinterpreted to mean: “I’m sorry you are so sensitive.”

       Do: Apologize for your actions. For instance: “I’m sorry I yelled at you.” Keep it simple. Family, especially kids, will want to move on and forgive us, so don’t belabor the point.

       Avoid the “But” Statement: Sometimes we end up taking back the apology with a “but” statement: “I’m sorry I yelled at you. But if you would do what I say the first time, I wouldn’t have to yell at you.” Adding “but” doesn’t work because it isn’t an apology. It is saying that my yelling is actually my kids fault. If he didn’t misbehave, I wouldn’t have yelled.

       Use “I” instead of “Mommy” or “Daddy.” Parents are one of the few people who talk about themselves in the third person, and it’s a bit weird. I’m not exactly sure why we do it, but it can get in the way of the apology by adding distance. Instead of saying “Daddy is sorry about what he did,” say “I’m really sorry for yelling.”

       Add: “There was no excuse.” For instance: “I’m sorry I yelled at you. There was no excuse.” This is a great way to give kids the message that we can’t excuse our actions. If we want our kids to take responsibility for their actions, this a way we can model how to do it.

       An apology doesn’t negate the bad thing they did. This is an important thing to remember. Just because you lost your temper and apologized doesn’t mean they get off without a punishment. If you yelled at your daughter and told her to go to her room for 20 minutes, you can apologize for the yelling, but still enforce the 20-minute time-out.

       Avoid apologizing before the offense.  This is the pre-offense apology: “I’m sorry if this offends you, but…” If you need to pre-apologize, you should probably not say it. Keep these ideas in mind the next time you are considering whether to apologize or not, and see if it makes a difference.

[Neil McNerney is a licensed counselor in private practice in Leesburg and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide to Helping Out Without Freaking Out! He can be reached at neil@neilmcnerney.com.]

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