The Art of Apology: Saying “I’m Sorry” to Our Kids


“I’m sorry, buddy. Please forgive me,” she confessed to her five-year-old child.

I sat there in shock watching my friend apologize to her son. I was kidless at the time, just a wee newlywed who had no one to take care of except for my 26-year-old husband. Many of our friends already had children. We spent time with their families and hoped that some of their stellar parenting skills might rub off on us when the time was right. We watched them. A lot. We watched hoping to one day emulate what we saw one day with our own.

I watched my friend that day. I watched her apologize and thought to myself, This is backwards. We shouldn’t have to apologize to our children; we’re the ones in charge. “On the contrary,” said my friend, “I raised my voice in impatience. What I did was wrong; I owe my son an apology.” She went on to assure me that if we wanted to raise kids who considered the needs of others, then we needed to consider theirs. If we wanted our children to learn to apologize for their mistakes, we needed to apologize for ours. Our children need models.

On any given day we think about modeling the basics for our children: riding a bike, doing the dishes, throwing a football, cooking dinner. It’s simple. They learn from watching us. Modeling basic virtues for them is even more critical. When we apologize, we are modeling humility for our children. We are showing them that putting aside one’s pride is a noble thing to do and an essential thing to do to care for others. But modeling humility in the face of our children is hard. To some degree, humility seems to undercut our authority as parents. And yet, watching us put aside our pride to apologize should accomplish the exact opposite in their little eyes. Watch. It does.

Our children are watching. They can spot hypocrisy when they see it. And if they see us doing something wrong without apologizing, they’ll do the same. If you’re like me, sometimes you yell at them in exasperation to pick up their messes. We yell, we roll our eyes in impatience, we say things we don’t mean. We screw up, a lot. We owe it to our children to say, “I’m sorry.” My friend was right. If we want to raise children who know how to apologize, we need to start apologizing ourselves.

Apologizing is an art. It takes a lot of work and a lot of practice.

In our family, apologies involve a Three-Step Process:

  1. Say “I’m sorry.”
  2. Acknowledge feelings.
  3. Ask forgiveness.

Step 1 (“I’m sorry”): These are words that should flow off our tongues as easily as “Goodnight” or “I love you.” But if we’re honest, these words are hard to say. For even the most humble of humans, admitting you are wrong is a difficult thing to do. And yet, it is one of the most important things we can do, and should be something we do with our children beginning at an early age.

So say it, a thousand times over: “I’m sorry.”

Ben Franklin once said, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” I have to remind myself of this often, otherwise many times my apologies sound like this (in an exasperated voice): “I’m sorry I yelled, but can you understand how it might be hard for Mommy to keep her cool when you’re behaving that way?!!” As a result, I have not acknowledged my own guilt, but heaped even more guilt on my child, blaming him for my mistake. Subconsciously this makes me feel better, and him feel rotten.

A helpful reminder is to simply fill in the blank: “I am sorry for __________.” Period. Own the mess you made.

Step 2 (Acknowledge feelings): Often it’s hard for the one who’s been hurt to extend forgiveness after an apology if he or she feels misunderstood. I am the QUEEN of this. When you are hurt, you want others to know why. Sometimes “sorry” simply isn’t enough, which is why we acknowledge how the other feels.

For example, “I’m sure when I yelled it made you feel really small. You probably felt like Mommy didn’t care about you very much.” It is just as important for us to hear these words as it is for our children. One hundred percent of the time it will soften your heart toward your child to acknowledge exactly how you’ve made them feel. Not only this, but your child will feel respected and understood knowing his or her feelings are real and validated.

Step 3 (Ask forgiveness): This step exists mainly for the restoration of the relationship. It requires the hurt child (or adult) to respond (hopefully a hearty “yes”), and the one apologizing can rest assured that the opposite party accepts his or her apology. Often when someone asks forgiveness in our house he or she receives a sulky response from a sibling, “It’s OK.” But it’s not OK, is it? This inadvertently affirms the wrong and justifies the act, whatever it may be. This is why we teach our kids to say, “I forgive you” as a sign of closure. It’s a way of saying, “I know what you did was wrong, but I choose to love you anyway.”

Forgiveness helps everyone forge ahead on the same page, allowing a blank slate and fresh start. For our family, once forgiveness has been established everyone seems to exhale, dry tears, and move on in good spirits. It takes some of us longer to get there, but it eventually happens.

Because we expect this from the littles at our house, it means we, as parents, set the tone. We apologize to each other often. We are quick to forgive. We give them models to replicate down the road, one day emulating the good with their own.

This summer our family apologized A LOT. It was hot, humid, and fits of pique were frequent. On the way home from the pool one day I lost my temper and yelled at my son out of fatigue and frustration. We walked inside, and I told him to go straight to his room.

“I’m sorry, buddy. Please forgive me,” I confessed to my five-year-old child. He listened intently, concentrating on my words.

And then, after a long pause, my sweet boy replied, “I’m sorry, too, Mom. I’m sure when I disobeyed you it made you feel crummy. Will you forgive me?”

He had been watching.

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