Three Reasons to Apologize to Your Children

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Image via Katie Hurley

Kids hear a lot about manners, apologizing, and being friendly.  They hear it at school, they hear it at home, and they hear it at the park.  “Say you’re sorry” tends to be a knee-jerk reaction when something goes wrong, whether accidental or intentional.  But does it truly have meaning?

Children internalize messages about the true meaning of apologies by watching their parents.  An “I’m sorry” said in anger feels less apologetic and more guilt inducing to a small child while an apology made in a moment of calm that is full of empathy and understanding conveys a much more positive message.

Those two little words can very powerful or completely without merit.  They can be used as a means to an end, as in the case where a child utters a stubborn apology so that he can go back to playing, or they can begin a conversation that repairs a wrong. 

Children internalize messages about the true meaning of apologies by watching their parents.  An “I’m sorry” said in anger feels less apologetic and more guilt inducing to a small child while an apology made in a moment of calm that is full of empathy and understanding conveys a much more positive message.

As much as we insist that our children right their wrongs with apologies, how often do we right our wrongs by kneeling down and apologizing to them?

If we want to raise kind, empathic children, we have to begin by monitoring our own words and actions.

Three reasons to apologize to your children:

Image via Flickr/Pink Sherbert Photography
Image via Flickr/Pink Sherbert Photography

They feel understood:

People make mistakes.  No matter what your age, mistakes happen.  As adults, we scroll through our minds in search of potential triggers that caused that mistake.  Was I short with my child because I fought insomnia all night?  Did I forget to pay my credit card bill because I had a long list of deadlines?  We look for the cause to make sense of the error, and then we move forward.

But for some reason, we hold small children to a higher standard.  Instead of helping a child connect the dots, many parents simply demand an apology and a quick fix.  Instead of truly apologizing to our children for our mistakes, we distract them, switch gears, and expect everyone to move on.

Children are forgiving, that much is true.  But children also deserve an apology when one is due.  When we take the time to apologize to our kids and talk through the mistake, we show them that we understand how they feel and that it’s acceptable to feel hurt.  In these moments, we display empathy and give our children the opportunity to talk about their feelings.  

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Image via Flickr/butupa
Image via Flickr/butupa

They learn:

The words “I’m sorry” can be fairly meaningless if you don’t know what you should be sorry for, or if you don’t really feel sorry in the moment.

Apologizing for a mistake and talking through a difficult situation shows your child how to do the same should they ever hurt the feelings of a friend or sibling.  It also demonstrates the healing power of feeling understood. An apology isn’t simply about the words coming out of your mouth, after all, it’s about the emotions connected to those words.  That’s a lesson worth teaching over and over again.

Image via Flickr/Stewart Black
Image via Flickr/Stewart Black

They connect:

Kids have a tendency to put their parents on pedestals.  They see a perfect version of us, no matter how we think we’re doing.  They also have a tendency to internalize minor mistakes as huge failures. 

When we admit to our faults and mistakes and work to repair them, we show our children that no one is perfect, people make mistakes, and mistakes should be forgiven.  We also show them that failure, big and small, is just part of the job of living.  There is always something to be gained from a mistake or failure, even for adults.  That’s the message that kids should carry with them as they grow. 

When we take these opportunities, we connect with our children.  We strengthen our bonds, improve our communication, and set them up for a lifetime of positive personal interaction skills.   

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Three Reasons to Apologize to Your Children

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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4 comments

  1. Caitlyn says:

    Say sorry to them and let them see you own up to your mistakes. As they get older they will know how to do the same.

  2. Amanda says:

    I really believe in this. My husband grew up with parents who never believed in apologizing, even if they were very clearly in the wrong. It lead to a lot of issues when my husband and his brother were teenagers. I always try to make sure I apologize to my children when an apology is due, especially if I’m being snappy or I lose my temper. To really make a sincere apology, I find it best to take a few deep breaths, get down at your child’s level and look them in the eyes when you apologize. It really forces you to calm down and take stock.

  3. mommy nhoj says:

    Well said. We do apologize to our baby iven if she has yet to another the word

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