Many of us were raised by parents who would never apologise. The idea that a figure of authority could admit to fallibility, weakness or vulnerability wasn’t part of the deal. As children we felt wronged and hurt and there was no empathetic witness to say ‘sorry’ – those hurts lingered longer as a result.
So why is it important to apologise?
If we trace patriarchal ideals back to the divine right of Kings we see how the monarch was subject to no earthly authority. The monarch was merely imposing the will of God. This assertion from a top-down hierarchical authority served to instil moral, religious and political obedience that went unquestioned by the people.
The authoritarian figure in all institutions, organisations and families often carries this same flavour of unquestionable rightness and authority.
The result is that when parents apologise to their children, when they acknowledge that their authority isn’t always correct, they dismantle the inherited patriarchal norm.
To apologise is a radical act given our history. It’s radical because we reveal vulnerability. We show our children that we are humanly flawed. In also tells our children that we are more like them than we might feel comfortable admitting. That’s why we often avoid it!
Apology as a show of strength not weakness
Many parents feel that leadership cannot show weakness. It’s a false assumption. To the contrary – leaders who express vulnerability are seen as more inspiring, are considered more authentic and therefore more trustworthy and create deeper connections.
Those sounds like great parenting skills to me and if we damage something we need to make repair.
It is in being open-hearted and emotionally available that our children really feel us. It’s an entirely different experience to the heady leadership of the invulnerable who doesn’t allow anyone to get really close.
So when you’ve messed up, as we inevitably do, when you know you’ve crossed a line and you were unfair or unreasonable or unkind, you can apologise. Do it – even if it’s uncomfortable at first. As vulnerability expert Brene Brown says, courage over comfort!
When you apologise to your child you are recognising the impact you have had. You are validating your child’s experience. In doing so you ease their upset and you build trust – the power of that is immeasurable.
For the child to be seen, and in you allowing yourself to be seen, bonds grow deeper. The relationship gain is worth the discomfort.
When isn’t it appropriate to apologise?
So many of us remember being forced to apologise as children – we hated it. When we feel unseen or misunderstood we naturally seek to defend ourselves and over time the conditioning is to avoid apologies at all costs!
If we are coercing our children into apologising we are modelling bad manners. To encourage inauthenticity corrodes trust in our authority. It’s not helpful to ask a children to express a feeling they simply aren’t experiencing.
If an apology feels essential, then allow your child time to connect with remorse (and it’s not a given they will) and support them to express it when it’s genuine in a non-shaming way.
There’s another cost to enforcing apology. The child may question why they don’t feel the way you are asking them to feel. This can undermine self-esteem and self-trust.
It may also lead the child to look for external prompts in knowing how to behave. This is incredibly sad as children have innate wisdom – to distance them from this knowing does them a huge dis-service.
The possible languages of apology
Another reason we don’t want to repeatedly encourage pseudo-apology is because it can become a language of suppressed emotion.
I think it’s because we haven’t addressed the deeper meaning of these “sorrys.” To me, they sound like tiny acts of revolt, expressions of frustration or anger at having to ask for what should be automatic. They are employed when a situation is so clearly not our fault that we think the apology will serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologising.
In other words, we apologise as a way of nudging the consciousness of another into seeing why an apology is fitting. What this shows us is that apology is a powerful way to feel understood and recognised.
It reminds us that as parents we can use apology as a gift. Apologising is a beautiful opportunity to make good out of something messy.
Don’t mis-use your ‘sorry’
As parents we often believe that validation sounds like; ‘I’m so sorry you are upset’. Catch yourself when you hear yourself saying that. What is the message behind those words? It suggests you don’t have faith that they can handle their disappointment or upset. And your child doesn’t need your sorry feelings as an added layer to their own feelings.
Use ‘sorry’ when you’re owning something – an action or behaviour or words that caused hurt. Model authenticity and know that might mean your ‘sorry’ can only come in it’s own time.
If we can model apologising without blame or shame that means avoiding the old chestnut of ‘I’m sorry but you made me so angry’. Saying “I’m sorry and I now believe I shouldn’t have done/said what I did” is cleaner and more self-responsible. Non-violent Communication offers some excellent tools for keeping communication clean and unblaming.
Feeling sorry for others
Writer Marc DuPre of qz.com recalls a thought-provoking experience of grief where his mother chose not to indulge her normal self-pitying, hand-wringing approach to life. His article, Love your children—but don’t believe them, defend them or feel sorry for them, explains:
But “feeling sorry for” someone can encourage an attitude of entitlement in the pitied one, a feeling that someone, somehow, owes me something. It suggests that people and systems are going to make room for our deficiencies, which should in truth be a kindness granted by us to others at the same time that we resist presuming it for
You don’t need to feel sorry for your child. Their experience is not ours, and the unspoken suggestion is a disempowering perspective on their resilience.
Sorry is a powerful word. Use it to repair, to show vulnerability and authenticity. Use it to build trust and deepen bonds. Use it when you are owning it. Afford it the respect it deserves. Go parent and have fun!