On Positive Parenting and Saying “I’m Sorry”

Today I yelled at Sally. I was trying to finish a project and she was getting in the way again and again and I just snapped. I stormed upstairs to finish what I was working on in peace, leaving Sally downstairs with her daddy. I knew yelling like that was not right and I knew I should have taken a deep breath instead of getting more and more annoyed. In retrospect, I should have saved finishing my project until later, or else I should have stopped and found Sally something constructive to do. But I didn’t.

After cooling off upstairs for a minute I knew what I needed to do. I went downstairs and found Sally and got down on her level and looked her in the eyes.

Sally, mommy’s sorry mommy yelled at you.

I love you very much and shouldn’t get upset at you like that. How about you come upstairs with mommy, and you can play with your train set while I finish what I’m working on?

Parents aren’t perfect. As a child I thought parents just automatically knew everything, but then I became a parent and realized how untrue that is. We have our own flaws and we do make mistakes. More and more I find that practice positive parenting with Sally helps me see my flaws more obviously than ever. Positive parenting is not for the weak at heart.

But for me, positive parenting also means that I can admit my mistakes. If you see parenting as a hierarchical relationship where the parent is the authority and absolute obedience is required from the child, admitting making a mistake can be problematic. But if you see parenting as a relationship between two flawed individuals in which each strives to learn from the other and respect the other’s needs without ignoring their own, admitting that you made a mistake only makes sense. And it’s very freeing.

This isn’t the first time I’ve apologized to Sally, and it won’t be the last. Sometimes I apologize for losing my temper, other times the apology is for putting too much time into my academic work on a given evening and not spending enough time engaging with her. Either way, I think being ready and willing to apologize is important, and for numerous reasons. First, it let’s Sally know from the beginning that I’m not perfect, but that I do try and love her very much. Second, it sets an example for Sally, encouraging her to be ready to apologize when she is in the wrong.

More than that, being willing to apologize to my daughter when I am in the wrong takes the edge off of any sort of parent-child competition in our relationship and emphasizes cooperation, honesty, and vulnerability. We all make mistakes, but we don’t try to hide or deny that. Instead, we accept each other and love each other in spite of whatever mistakes we make.

Now obviously, as a disclaimer, I should point out that I’m talking about a heartfelt apology, not an apology that is used as a get out of jail free card. If I were beating Sally and then apologizing for it afterwards and expecting her to forgive me for my “mistake,” or even if I were repeatedly ignoring Sally evening after evening in order to study and then each night apologizing at bedtime for not spending time with her without making a conscious effort to remedy the problem, that would be a different matter entirely. That’s not the kind of apology I’m talking about.

I love how positive parenting allows me to drop the facade of perfection and instead emphasize cooperation and mutual understanding. I love that Sally and I can be a team, that we can our mistakes and exchange a hug and move on from there. And finally, I would hope that setting up a relationship based on cooperation rather than hierarchy – and based on admitting our mistakes rather than denying them - will make it easier for Sally and I to transition to an adult-adult relationship when that time comes.

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A Letter from Jesus and Living in Fear
The Radical Notion that Children Can Have Anxiety Too
Red Town, Blue Town
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • shadowspring

    Beautiful post from a beautiful mom. Modeling humility, responsibility, compassion and respect are far more important than making rules about such things. Might does NOT make right, the older isn’t the only one worthy of respect, and forgiveness is easy to offer when people (even grownups) own up to their wrong-doing. You get gold stars in my book.

    The mutual teaching/learning doesn’t ever stop when you have a mutually respectful bond of love between parent and child. My son taught me I was wrong about GLBT folks. My daughter taught me how to love without controlling. I am sure there is still much I will learn from them in the future.

    I am happy to know you are in the world, Libs. <3

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      I am happy to know BOTH of you are in the world. You both sound like such wonderful parents and I always love reading what you have to say. :-)

      And you make a really good point positive parenting allowing for mistakes, Libby. A lot of advocates of authoritarianism seem to construct positive parenting as more taxing to the parent because it requires them to take other feelings besides their own into account. But you’re right that, in a lot of ways, it really is a more liberating model for parents because it actually allows them to be human beings, not gods.

      • Carol

        “A lot of advocates of authoritarianism seem to construct positive parenting as more taxing to the parent because it requires them to take other feelings besides their own into account.”

        That’s so INTERESTING. It’s true though. I constantly evaluate my actions against my kids’ thoughts and feelings. Come to think of it, I do that with everyone. But it means something to me. It’s totally worth it. I can’t even imagine not taking their feelings into account

  • Comrade Svilova

    Great apology language too. My mom often defaults to ‘I’m sorry IF you FEEL that blah blah blah…’ which is really invalidating.

    • Carol

      uuuuuUGH. The patented nonpology. You’re obviously taking whatever “it” is too personally. I don’t think my parents ever apologized to me about anything.

      I apologize all the time when I lose my cool, which isn’t very often. But ever since they were little, I did that. It is freeing, it feels right. And, my kids and I have a great relationship, there’s no competition, no one has to be right all the time. Have to go, my brother is on the phone…

  • Caitlin

    I think it’s great that you can apologize to your daughter, but if dad was home and you were working on a project, it seems dad should be the one responsible for finding something more constructive for Sally to do. Perhaps there was a good reason he didn’t/couldn’t, but I think mothers place a lot of guilt on themselves for not being perfect when a bigger problem is that they don’t get the support that they need.

    • Kristen

      I was thinking the same thing. I imagine there was a good reason for it, because Libby’s husband sounds like a great dad from everything she’s written about him, but that thought popped into my head too.

      We’re all human. My husband and I talked about this recently because I was feeling overwhelmed. Our son is 2, we’ve taken care of childcare almost equally since he was born, but while he loves both of us, he seems to have this possessive, passionate, fierce need for my attention more than his dad’s right now. I’m also very sensitive about being touched… I adore my son to the end of the earth, but more than a few hours with him sitting on my lap and climbing on me and leaning on me and touching me and I start to get short-tempered. I asked my husband to try to jump in to the rescue and give me an hour or so of space each evening. It wasn’t that he was checking out or anything, just that when both of us were available to play with him, our son was ignoring him and gravitating towards me.

  • smrnda

    A great post, you’re modeling great, mutually respectful behavior for your daughter. Your teaching her so many great values by being willing to apologize. All authoritarians are teaching their kids is that if you happen to be in charge, you can do whatever you feel like and never have to say your sorry. I can’t see how anyone who demands total obedience from their kids can really be teaching them love, respect, or concern for anyone else.

    I’ve always found it funny when someone like James Dobson argues that today we’re less compassionate because people quit beating their kids – I think he’s totally wrong on people being less tolerant today (but as an old straight Christian white guy in the US, he’s not one of those people who had it bad say, 50 years ago) but you can’t teach compassion or morality with a stick.

    When I’ve worked with kids I do very much the same thing – I am willing to say I’m sorry even for things like “I’m sorry we don’t have any muffins left.” Kids don’t – and shouldn’t – automatically trust or be expected to trust adults and I always felt like it was my job to prove to kids that I cared about them.

    I guess my whole approach is that I’m not entitled to a child’s respect unless I earn it, rather than thinking the other way around – that kids owe me unconditional respect and obedience regardless of whether I’ve earned it or not.

  • CarolAnn

    I often apologized to my sons when I over reacted, but I also felt that they needed to be clearly aware of what my boundaries were. If I was working, no amount of misbehavior was going to get them what they wanted. If I didn’t handle the situation calmly I owned up to my failures, but they were required to own up to theirs as well.

    I also agree that your husband should have stepped up if he was, in fact, there.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ blotzphoto

    I completely feel you Libby. Seven years of stay at home daddying, including an extra three years of toddlerhood from Grommit the Oops Baby have frayed my nerves quite a bit more than I expected when we started this ride. Lots of bad parenting habits can develop in that time, and losing my temper has been one of them. Apologizing sincerely for me snapping, making sure that they know that it is MY fault when I LOSE my temper is an important lesson for all of us. It’s a lesson in self control and a lesson in taking responsibility for ones actions.

  • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

    In addition to concurring with previous comments, I think you’re awesome for giving your daughter a train set to play with ;-). (Because I’m both a feminist and a train nut)