Kids, Parenting, and Apologizing

In the first year of the pandemic, I was participating in a meeting last week with a group of parent educators when the facilitator posed these questions as “ice-breakers” before we got deeper into our agenda: What is something you have spent more time on during these challenging times? What has grounded you and your family?

Asking these kinds of questions is, of course, a bit of a leap of faith for any facilitator even though, in this case, we knew each other well. My own emotional response certainly varies depending on the day. Some days, I might happily share that I found restorative solace in taking my kids to little pockets of nature in our city. Other days, I might just weep openly in response to the question. While potentially awkward, crying is an understandable response as we parent through the layered crises. 

I don’t exactly remember what I answered at the beginning of that meeting but the prompt stuck with me throughout that day. What have we spent more time doing? What has felt grounding? Curious about how my kids would answer, I asked them. Here’s their short list:

    • Eating pizza. 
    • Making signs. 
    • Being outside. 
    • Zooming. 
    • Crying. 
    • Hiking and biking.
    • Computer time. 
    • Apologizing. 

Child pressing folded hands against parents hands in an act of apology

It was actually useful to hear their off-the-cuff ideas. I am sure their reflections were largely shaped by our perfect sunny summer day. On another, not so sunny day, the descriptors: stressed, bored, or angry might have been at the top of their list.  One word, however, stuck out and it felt like the most resonant answer in the bunch: Apologizing.

If parenting during a pandemic has taught us anything it is that when we navigate intensely messy, joyful, stressful, scary, and traumatic times together, we have lots of opportunities to apologize if we take them. In my family, we’ve talked about how difficult it can be to handle our big feelings when we are stressed and that we aren’t always going to be our best selves. Amidst so much stress and uncertainty, we’ve committed to “acknowledging harm where we cause it” and “finding our way back to each other.” It’s not always easy or pretty, but it is something that we have spent more time on and, when we get it right, grounds us in what matters most: connection.

Kids and apologies.

Some parents are convinced that little kids are too young to understand the social dynamics of an apology. It turns out though that even preschoolers do understand what an apology means and what it feels like. For example, preschoolers are more likely to play with children who apologize after they have caused harm. Research also shows children respond positively to restorative action – a key component of a good apology. For example, kids feel better when a child offers to help rebuild a block tower they toppled. 

So how do we coach kids in the art of apologizing and repairing? It’s clear that it takes more than just saying “You better apologize or else!” In one study, researchers found that children are quite sensitive to hollow or coerced apologies, especially as they get older. They found that kids respond well to willing apologies, even if they are prompted by adults. Coerced, inauthentic apologies, on the other hand, tend to backfire. Not unlike adults, a delayed sincere apology or genuine attempts to repair are more effective than a quick, forced “Sorry.” Especially when parenting in public, it can be tempting to rush an apology to smooth over the situation for the adults watching. But researchers suggest that we slow down, lose the lecture, and focus on helping our kids regulate their emotions and understand their impact before prompting an apology. Here are a few ideas:

  • “Do you see how Luci is feeling right now? Her tears tell me that she is upset that you took her book.”
  • “Let’s calm down your body together. Then we can talk to Raj.”
  • “You seem upset that you hurt Simone. Let’s find out how you can make it better.” 
  • “Now that you are more calm, what might you do differently next time? Let’s tell them about it.”

Apologizing is important.

While apologies about knocking over block towers or squeezing a sibling’s arm too tight might not seem overly significant right now, our pandemic parenting lives are providing plenty of practice for skills that are essential to our collective future. Apologizing and offering repair commensurate with the harm we cause is an essential part of building relationships and ultimately building more just communities. Indeed, on a much larger scale we are in a long overdue reckoning about racial harm and the dangers of actively avoiding authentic acknowledgement, apology, and reparations. Learning how to repair on both a personal and community level is an essential skill that we can start practicing with kids when they are young.

Apologizing takes practice.

So far we’ve talked about coaching our kids to understand impact and accountability. It is just as important for us parents to model apologies and repair. I was so grateful to hear Brené Brown’s podcast early in the summer with Dr. Harriet Lerner who recently published a book on why apologizing matters. Here are five key takeaways that have been especially useful to our family this summer:

Focus on our own actions and get rid of the “buts.”

It is really easy to offer a non-apology that sounds like this. “I’m sorry I yelled but you both were acting out of control.” Or, “Sorry you felt like I was yelling at you” (but I wasn’t). Turns out these aren’t really apologies. It is our job to acknowledge and offer an apology for our own own poor behavior. If we have concerns about our kids’ behavior we can certainly address them, but linking them together in the moment negates our apology. We can model that our apologies respond to harmful impact (how my actions affected you) regardless of intent (whether or not I meant it to harm you). 

Avoid endlessly correcting kid’s apologies.

This can be really challenging when our kids mutter “I’m sorry” in a tone that doesn’t sit well with us or feels hollow. Especially into adolescence, endless battles about what the ideal apology should have sounded like only encourages kids to avoid the interaction.

Don’t overdo it.

While apologies are a key relationship tool, it is possible to over-do it. For example, research shows that girls are socialized to over-apologize when there is no reason to do so. As much as we love a good apology, we’ve been working on getting rid of unnecessary ones.

Practice accepting apologies.

When either my kids or my partner apologizes, my first reaction is to respond with “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.” Instead, we’ve been working on responding simply with “Thank you.” It’s important to note that if we find ourselves in a pattern of apologizing (or accepting apologies) for the same poor behavior, now is a good time to get extra mental health support.

Include an offer for repair that fits the situation.

While words are helpful, they usually aren’t enough. We should offer ways to repair – whether it is replacing an item, offering a sincere commitment to do better or do differently, or to ask “What do you need from me to make this better?”

This is absolutely a time of big feelings – for both kids and parents alike. One of the dangers of living through this pandemic is that when our feelings collide, we respond by taking our hurt, worry, or anger into our own emotional corners. Go ahead and listen to the podcast, share it with your parenting partner or friends, and remember that practicing good apologies can bring us back towards each other.