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When Parents Say “I’m Sorry,” They Are Saying So Much More

Children learn to apologize by watching their parents say "I'm sorry."

Two simple words, “I’m sorry”, from a parent to a child, have a monumental impact on a child and yet the parent apology is rare. Many parents don’t realize the importance of apologizing to their child. They also don’t believe they need to apologize. It’s not part of our culture for adults to admit wrong doing to children, even when it’s obvious they are at fault. In reality, when a parent apologizes to a child, it further cements the parent-child relationship and provides the child with a sense of safety and well-being.

When parents apologize they are instilling a value system and a belief that it’s okay to be human and therefore imperfect. They are role modeling accountability. They are demonstrating that taking action to accept responsibility after a mistake is more important than the mistake itself. They are living the old adage “it's not whether you make a mistake, it’s how you handle that mistake”.

Parents’ ability to acknowledge mistakes and accept responsibility for actions is imperative in helping their children to do the same. Parents who recognize their own shortcomings teach their children these very important lessons:

  • Self-acceptance includes accepting ones fallibilities. In our fast paced competitive world, people often focus on keeping up with what is outside of themselves, rather than accepting who they are, including their limitations. When parents apologize they send a message that they are imperfect and competent at the same time and that’s okay.
  • Being wrong is not the same as being weak. Children need to be taught that asking for forgiveness and accepting failure is not only more important than covering up mistakes, but its s sign of strength and bravery.
  • Avoiding fault by lying makes the mistake greater. Children who lie do so because they think that getting caught for making a mistake is worse than the mistake. Apologizing teaches a child that living with a lie is worse than admitting their mistake.
  • Adults are not omnipotent and invincible. If children see their parents’ mistakes and subsequent apologies they will be more prepared for life. They will know that grownups can be responsible and loving and still make mistakes.
  • Learning Opportunities. Mistakes that parents and children make are teachable moments. Parents can tell a child “See the mistake I just made, now let’s learn from it”.
  • Mistakes are inevitable. Some things cannot be learned without making mistakes. For example, for toddlers, part of learning to share toys involves making mistakes and then apologizing.
  • Taking risks may mean more mistakes. Being comfortable with asking for forgiveness and accepting responsibility allows people to challenge themselves and therefore grow from their actions.
  • Children may not have the words to express it, but they often recognize when parents make mistakes. When parents have acted wrongly and don’t acknowledge their failures it’s like the elephant in the room. For example, telling your kids not to swear and then swearing without apologizing is an obvious wrong doing and sends a mixed message.
  • Self-esteem. When parents admit fault, they are showing their kids that they feel good enough about themselves to face the consequences of their actions. Modeling a healthy self-esteem is an important component of self-esteem development in children.

When parents overcome their fear of apologizing and say “I’m sorry” to their child, they give their child a gift of freedom to make mistakes., or

More from Kate Roberts Ph.D.
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