The Hardest Word: Saying ‘Sorry’ to Your Kids

I did it again. Made my son cry, that is. If you read my last post, in which I pondered whether or not it’s okay to shout at your kids, you know that I have, on occasion, been known to raise my voice to my children. Well.

It was all absolutely ridiculous. We’re hiking, and come upon a high mountain stream. My oldest makes a boat out of a cup-shaped leaf, puts a heather-blossom ‘baby’ in it, and floats it gently downstream. We’re laughing, joking, having a great time. Enter baby brother with stone. He holds the rock above the ‘boat’ in an obviously threatening manner.

Big brother: “Griffin [for that is the little monster’s name], don’t drop that on my boat.”

“No, really, don’t sink my boat.”

“Griffin, really, please don’t.”

“Griffin, don’t, I want to see how far it goes. Please don’t.”

And with that, the rock is dropped, the boat is sunk. Four times his big brother asked – in fact pleaded – with him not to do something, and yet he did it anyway.

So my voice starts out at a normal, conversational pitch as I tell our youngest that what he’d just done was selfish and inappropriate. But as I’m talking, I can feel myself becoming more angry, more unhinged. And I end up shouting at him. By the time I walk away, he’s bawling.

We begin our descent, and he stumbles along through a world blurred by tears. I’m still angry, not sure that I can speak calmly, so I don’t speak at all. But as the anger ebbs, the guilt trickles in. I handled that badly, and I know it. I should have explained to him, no actually, asked him why that was not the right thing to do. I should have calmly taught a lesson in empathy and restraint. Instead I yelled at him. So what to do now?

Apologize. Simple as that. But apologizing can be really hard, and even more so when you’re apologizing to your own children. Some parents think it will diminish their authority. Some let pride get in the way. Some believe that it will sweep aside the cloak of infallibility and expose the frailty beneath. Well you know what? We’re fallible. Some of us comprehensively and frequently so. But it’s important that your kids see that, understand it, and know it’s okay.

So here are my thoughts on why apologizing to your kids – apologizing in general – is so important.

It clears the air. An unspoken apology is the elephant in the room. Everybody knows when one is deserved, and if it goes unspoken a slow poison seeps through the situation. Apologizing simply makes everyone feel better, and helps to heal a relationship that has been temporarily torn.

It provides a sense of security and trust. You’ve made a parenting mistake – shouted at your kids, given overly-harsh punishment, wrongly accused them of something, whatever. Your child might be frightened, angry, resentful. An honest apology lets them know that they’re loved, that you value them and their feelings, and that while you may have been briefly irritated (or, as in this my most recent case, enraged), they will always have your affection and respect.

It models positive behavior. Parents frequently ask their children to apologize for bad behavior, but sometimes fail to do so themselves. Bit of a mixed message there. Demonstrating to your kids that you take responsibility and own up to your own mistakes teaches them that when they do something wrong it’s within their power to make it right.

It teaches them that it’s okay to be imperfect. As I’ve written before, our oldest is a bit of a perfectionist, and both avoids activities or situations in which he might fail and beats himself up if he’s made a misstep. Being wrong is not the same as being weak, and apologizing to your children helps get that message across. You can be simultaneously competent and imperfect, and acknowledging your mistakes with an apology is not a sign of weakness but one of strength.

It bolsters mutual respect. It’s sometimes difficult for parents to think of their children – particularly young children – as unique entities who harbor their own personalities and who are worthy of our respect, our esteem, even, at times, our deference. When you offer your child an apology it shows them that you respect them as individuals, and in turn they will be more likely to recognize and respect your own individuality.

So enough with the why. What about the how? I would only say this.

Explain why you felt and reacted the way you did. You don’t need to plumb the psychological depths here – just give them a simple outline of what you did wrong. Let me be clear – what you did wrong, not what they did wrong.

Skip the ‘buts’. This is something I’m still working on. Have you ever given one of those half-assed apologies? The weasily ones that go, “I’m sorry I…, but you shouldn’t have….” No. Stop before the ‘but.’ This will teach them to take responsibility without shifting the blame to someone else.

An article on Positive Parenting Solutions suggests that an apology to your kid might go something like this:

“I felt frustrated when you weren’t ready for school on time, but it was not okay for me to let out my anger by yelling at you. I’m so sorry I yelled. I’m sure that was scary and hurtful for you. I need to work harder to use my calm voice, so I put sticky notes around the house to remind me. Can you forgive me? I’d like to talk about how we can fix this problem and move forward.”

Well, okay, but that’s just not me. I’m fine with the first bits, but “sticky notes around the house”? “Fix this problem and move forward”? Sounds like an apology to a simple-minded colleague. I tend to relate to my kids on a fairly informal level, so mine would probably be more like:

“I was really frustrated when you weren’t ready for school [shitwit], but I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I’m sorry that I made you cry – that wasn’t cool. Did that scare you? Yeah, really, I’m sorry about that.”

I would probably then go on to say, while not ascribing blame:

“Can we avoid this situation in the future? Can you make sure that you’re ready on time [and not screwing around with your Legos or pretending to brush your teeth, or lazing around in your goddamn pajamas when your clothes are all laid out for you]?”

And every apology should end with a hug. Come to that, it should probably start with one too. With maybe a couple in the middle. I’m big into hugging.

The trip, and kids, in question.

The trip, and kids, in question.




4 thoughts on “The Hardest Word: Saying ‘Sorry’ to Your Kids

  1. Great explanation of why apologising is so important and love your advice about skipping the butts – so hard to do but so important. Still working on this myself with my 4 year old. Really got a lot out of this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It totally is understandable to lose your shit…you wonder why oh why in God’s name can’t they just stop at the 2nd “dont”. And equally important as well to apologise when you lose your shit…it was hard for me to say sorry the first time a few years ago, and it gets easier everytime. So yeah, I lost it a hell lot. :please. Still learning here. 😅

    Enjoyed reading your post. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • The hardest bit is when the adrenaline runs out and you realize that you just completely screwed the situation, that you did exactly what you wish for them not to do. But learning….


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