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.