Gentle Parenting Tools: Apology

Early last year we got home after a church service, I was huge and pregnant, and tired, and feeling fried after so much religious talk. The kids were whining, and 4 year old Ms Action and 3 year old Ms Drama started fighting about something. I yelled over my shoulder at them to stop it as I waddled into the bathroom to pee. The fight continued, and as I came out of the bathroom I saw Ms Drama slap her sister. Old instincts kicked in on top of frustration, and without thinking I grabbed her arm and smacked her hand saying “don’t hit your sister!”.

Her mouth dropped open in shock and she screamed. I doubt she cognitively remembers being spanked, so it may be the first time in her memory that I hit her. I stormed away into the kitchen and left her crying in the hall. About a half hour later when I had cooled down, I was explaining to my husband how I felt crappy because I had broken my non-spanking stance and smacked Ms Drama. He replied “why don’t you apologize to her?” I thought of the usual excuses, but after a moment I went over to where she was watching a cartoon with her sisters and sat down next to her and said “I’m sorry I hit you, hitting hurts, hitting is not OK.” She suddenly transformed from sullen and reserved, to smiling shyly and giving me a strangle hug.


I used to tell myself that my kids didn’t deserve to be apologized too. If they had been behaving in the first place I never would have done anything that I needed to apologize for. Plus they were really young anyways right? They would forget whatever had happened within a few minutes, so my apologizing would just remind them of that conflict. I also think my aversion to apologizing was related to how my parents forced us to apologize for whatever they decided we had done wrong, sometimes apologizing was the only way to appease them, even if you hadn’t done anything. Coupled with this, my parents rarely if ever apologized to their children, and never admitted wrong. Children were always the wrong ones, being an adult gave you the privilege of always being right.

As I’ve started to realize just powerful a heartfelt apology is, I found myself wanting to kick my pride to the corner and give my children the gift of admitting wrong. And it has changed everything about how we relate. So many bad days have been stopped in their tracks by a simple apology. I have made mistakes, and I’m sure that I will continue to do so. Being an adult does not mean you are always right, like I believed as a child.

Obviously, if I were to keep doing whatever I am apologizing for again and again, my apology would be ineffective. One’s actions speak as loud, or louder than one’s words. But, I’ve found that when I apologize for something I am far more likely to hold myself to it and do the work to make sure it doesn’t continue to happen, and that change is a priority to me.

In my reading on this topic, I came across the book “The Power of the Apology” by Beverly Engel, and I really liked the way she summed up the elements of a meaningful apology.

A statement of regret for having caused harm or pain. This is where empathy for the other persons experience comes in. Putting yourself in the shoes of the person you have harmed and feeling sorrow for the pain you caused.
An acknowledgement and acceptance of responsibility for your actions. This means no blaming or excuses. This includes “I’m sorry… but”.
 A statement of willingness to take action to remedy the situation. Either not repeating the action or doing the real work involved in eliminating/remedying the problem.

A little over a year ago (6 years after getting married and moving out of my parents house) I sent a letter to my parents confronting them about the abuse in my childhood for the first time. Since then I have received some my first apologies ever from them, but most of the time they rung rather hallow. Both parents had progressed to the point where they could express regret for certain things, but that was where the apology halted. I heard a lot of excuses of why they had treated me the way they did, as if they were trying to justify their actions. And there was no effort to change anything. In many ways they treated my siblings who were still at home in the same ways as they always had, and there were no promises to go to counselling or even read a book an start to educate themselves on childrearing or abuse. I had to learn how to break those chains in my own life whether they would acknowledge them or not.

This last autumn was the first time I slowly started to notice something different, my parents started reading books that their children asked them to read, and slowly, some things around my parent’s house started to change. This began to give me some hope that maybe they really were willing to learn and that life could end up being better for some of my younger siblings. A few weeks back I had a long phone call with my mom and she was chatting about one of the changes happening over there, I was surprised to hear about it, and said as much. She acted as if I shouldn’t be surprised and started to go down the usual route of excuses and insisting she did not remember the restrictions I remembered from my childhood, I explained a few of my memories and she was quiet for a moment, and then she said “Yeah, I do remember that. We were such terrible parents then.” I have already begun the journey of forgiveness, so I was surprised by the feeling of relief when my mom said those words. My mom didn’t even realize it, but she had just given me a gift, she had acknowledged the harm, and accepted responsibility for the first time. The apology she had been trying to give for the last year had just moved another step.

An apology doesn’t mean that everything is magically fixed. It doesn’t change the negative experiences of my childhood. An apology doesn’t mean that I can magically feel happy fuzzy feelings whenever I happen to think of my parents, and it doesn’t mean that my parents have changed every harmful behaviour they do.

But here are some of the things that a genuine heartfelt apology CAN do.

Apologizing shows respect.

Apologizing shows that you are capable of taking responsibility for your own actions.

Apologizing shows that you care about the other person’s feelings and can reassure them that you are no longer a threat.

Apologizing to your children teaches them how to do all of the above. I do not force my children to apologize, I teach them respect for others and how to take responsibility for their actions. A genuine apology is better than a forced apology, a reflex one, or an apology expecting a certain result.

“Love and cruelty are mutually exclusive. No one ever slaps a child out of love but rather because in similar situations, when one was defenceless, one was slapped and then compelled to interpret it as a sign of love. This inner confusion prevailed for thirty or forty years and is passed on to one’s own child. That’s all. To purvey this confusion to the child as truth leas to new confusions that although examined in detail by experts, are still confusions. I on the other hand, one can admit one’s errors to the child and apologize for a lack of self-control, no confusions are created.
If a mother can make it clear to a child that at that particular moment when she slapped him her love for him deserted her and she was dominated by other feelings that had nothing to do with the child, the child can keep a clear head, feel respected, and not be disoriented in his relationship to his mother,. While it is true that love for a child cannot be commanded, each if us is free to decide to refrain from hypocrisy.”
Banished Knowledge by Alice Miller Page 35

When a parent refuses to apologize for failing to respect their child, and for causing them harm, they are perpetuating this myth that disrespect and abuse are OK. Or even worse, that are just a part of love. While every person has feelings and will react to things badly at times, I never want my child to feel that they do not deserve respect and care. Someday when they are making choices of companions and friends, I want them to choose to be around people who respect them, and can admit when they are wrong. I don’t want my child to dismiss a person’s violence or mistreatment of them to be just a part of love.

Apology can have that much power.
Here is a link to a great article on what to do when you’ve crossed the boundaries of respect with your child,
and you want make it right.
I’ve been asked for specific ideas and scenarios illustrating gentle discipline techniques, and that prompted the birth of my ongoing series on Gentle Parenting Tools where I will try to do just that. Stick around to hear about my process of trial and error as I continue to figure out what it means to be a gentle positive leader, and be sure to share your own breakthroughs and ideas and questions!

  • Scott Morizot

    Just remember, you don't have to apologize any less as they become teens and, if anything, the apologies become harder.

  • Caravelle

    Great and powerful post as always. I love your series on gentle parenting.

    It's really interesting how apologies are a very important part of our lives (what with being one ingredient of the fabric of social life we live in) but we rarely analyze what an apology really is and what purpose they serve, and that leads to so many problems.

    I do think it has something to do with the way apologies are taught to children. I remember when I was young not understanding how adults could take two arguing children, make them say "sorry" to each other, and then think the problem was solved when it obviously wasn't.

    Ultimately the message there is that the adult's only priority is to stop the fighting. The actual disagreement, being a disagreement between children, is of no consequence, and the main crime the children are guilty of is inconveniencing the adult. Often said explicitly ("I don't care who started it !"). By getting them to say sorry to each other the adult is making them copy a ritual of how disagreements are resolved without any substance; what actually made them stop was the adult's intervention itself.

    The thing is I can see some validity to that – for example one can make an argument that the fighting or arguing itself is a problem because there are better way of resolving disagreements, and so you should focus on the fighting only. I can also see an argument that children being children, the disagreement actually ISN'T important and if they're just "snapped out of it" they'll go back to playing together in no time.

    I certainly got put in that situation when I was teaching English to Japanese preschoolers, and my Japanese was up to most things, but understanding a group of children explaining to me why two had been fighting wasn't one of them. I certainly did my share of "just say sorry to each other and be done with it", and sometimes I wondered if it was a good thing that I couldn't understand them because then I wasn't put in a position of actually arbitrating their disagreements.
    But thinking on it I think it probably would have been better; much as I don't want the responsibility of deciding who's right and who's wrong, surely it's an opportunity to teach them how you actually resolve disputes as adults… But you need time and energy for that.

    I think it may also depend on their age. Two- and three- years olds were usually like "X took my toy" or "Y hit me", whereas the four to five year-olds sometimes made me feel I was a detective working out who had left what at whose house when and whether X had been a gift or a loan…

    Anyway, I was thinking this was unique to apologies but it occurs to me a lot of confusions with social codes might be linked to the fact those social codes are enforced on children in a very different way than on adults – *because* children's affairs are considered less important than adults'.

  • Anonymous

    I'm curious how you make them take responsibility for their actions without making them apologize. I do make my kids apologize, but it's only for something like hitting. I'm starting to teach the 5yo that if he's being mean, he needs to find something nice to do, but the 3yo is still too young to really understand. Most of the time they're just tired and in each other's space too much. Just wondering if you've found a good way to help them understand taking responsibility for the mean things they do.

  • Melissa

    Scott- Thanks for the reminder!

    Caravelle- I love your point on how the message we adults often send is that saying the words of an apology will somehow fix the problem without ever having to resolve it. I remember the “I don’t care who started it” too!

    Anonymous- My kids are young, (from almost 5 down to 8 months), and at first my instinct was to tell them to say sorry! But it felt so phony, and I remembered being forced to apologize for things I hadn’t done, as well as apologizing for things I wasn’t sorry for. Much of the time, when my kids have conflict there is no real reason to require an apology, it’s just a disagreement or a mutual scuffle. When one of them deliberately does something to hurt the other (and I physically saw it happen), I usually get down on the floor with them and do a few things. I empathize: “Wow, when you got pushed you bumped your head on that table, Ouch! That must hurt so much! I’m so sorry that happened.” I point out to the child who shoved their sibling “She bumped her head, that really hurts. That happened because you pushed her. We cannot shove people because then they get hurt. What can you do to help your sister feel better?” Then the child usually will show concern for the siblings injury, pat or hug them, say they are sorry or offer something that resolves the conflict that started the fight in the first place (such as sharing a toy). If the child is really angry and wants to continue hurting the other child, then I will take them to sit with me and help me with whatever I am doing, explaining that if they are going to hurt people again and again, they will have to stay by me because it is my job to make sure that everyone stays safe. We usually end up talking more about what provoked the issue to begin with, and giving the offending child the attention they need. (Just a note, for kids under 2 its usually just empathy and re-direction that works, they don’t really seem to get the whole “at-fault” idea until about 3 or so) Here is an excellent series with ideas on how to handle this type of thing.

  • Caravelle

    Oh, and another thing: I'm so glad to hear that your parents are coming round ! It is rather painful to read about your childhood and ongoing problems with your parents given how obvious it is you love each other despite it all, so it's wonderful to think healing might be around the corner. (and kudos to them too; acknowledging you were wrong can be a blow to one's self-esteem at the best of times, but accepting you were actually a "terrible parent" must be something else again)

    I've also noticed how very, very long my previous comment is. Sorry about that.

  • Michael Mock

    Loved this post!

    I would like to add a related point: apologies aren't just good for parenting, they're a great marital aid as well! Learning to say "I'm sorry / I shouldn't have done that / I was wrong" to your spouse is a great and wonderful thing as well.

  • Anonymous

    When my sons were younger, we would have them get involved in solving the problem as a road to seeing why/how their actions were hurtful. If one child hit the other, he would be the person to get an ice pack or stuffed animal or whatever to help his brother feel better. By the time that was accomplished, he was usually in a different frame of mind and genuinely wanted to help him feel better.

    I think apologizing to our kids is so important! I remember being totally flabbergasted as an adult when 1.) someone "higher up" than me at work publicly took responsibility for a mistake, and 2.) someone asked my forgiveness for something. That never ONCE happened in my family when I was growing up. We were Catholic, so I "got" the idea of apologizing to God, but the only apologies I received were from one parent when they were drunk. Many years later, the other parent did apologize for allowing many harmful things to happen in our family. But sincere apologies at a younger age would've taught me so much.

  • Michelle

    Apologizing to my children did not come easy for me at first…the first time I did it, my oldest was 7 years old. It came at a moment where I said something that I thought about afterwards and realized I should not have said the way I did. Since then, the times where apologies are necessary are somewhat few and far between, but it gets a little bit easier when I remember that I am human, I am not always right and my kids will never learn about what to do when committing a wrong unless they see their parents giving a good example of it (like anything else we'd like our kids to learn).

  • Sheila

    It's amazing to me what a revelation this was. We're always taught not to apologize to children, that it's important that they always think of us as infallible. But how is that really going to last? Sooner or later they'll figure out that we aren't, and then they'll be disappointed that we aren't and angry that we refuse to admit that we aren't. I remember feeling that way when my parents would fight with each other. They would always make up — with each other. And I was SO ANGRY that they never thought to apologize to us kids for upsetting us.

    The real challenge to me is apologizing for things I did unintentionally. For instance, maybe I backed up from the counter and accidentally knocked down my toddler. My tendency is to say, "You shouldn't stand behind me!" But would it kill me to instead say, "I'm sorry, I didn't see you there!" That's what I would like HIM to do, when he's a little older and makes a mistake. And like you say, how are they ever to learn how to apologize if we never show them how?

  • Melissa

    Yes! It has been rather shocking but wonderful to see some of the changes going on over there. I really hope it continues!

  • Melissa

    Awesome point Michael. I have found so much of what I have learned about parenting can be applied to myself and my marriage as well. This series could be titled "Self-parenting and Marriage rules".

  • Melissa

    I like the idea of teaching children to make something right, so much of real life interaction involves making amends for harm done, not just words said.

    And yes! My Dad apologized to me for the first time in my life (and told me he loved me for the first time in the same conversation) when I was 22. I was stunned, and I am still moved whenever I see someone apologize to a child.

  • Melissa

    Michelle- Yes, coming to that awareness that I am not perfect and I don't have to pretend that I am, was so helpful for me in taking that next step to be able to apologize.

  • Melissa

    Sheila- I don't think the illusion of infallible-ness would last long! Lol! That's a good point about parents apologizing to their kids for fighting with each other, I try to make it a point to apologize to each other in front of our kids if we faught in front of them, but I didn't think about apologizing to them personally.
    And I had the opposite experience in learning to say I was sorry. I was alright apologizing for little accidents, it was the admitting I had done something wrong part, that has been sooooo hard for me to get past.

  • Theresa Thomas

    Wonderful, deep thoughts on apology- You are refreshingly honest about this- Good read. ! God bless- Theresa

  • Genevieve

    While I was growing up, my mother was not a perfect parent, just like any parent. And she really struggled in life, getting divorced when I was 4, having a live in boyfriend who was an alcoholic, being harsh and critical, not living up to the standards she set for us and for herself. But one of the most powerful things that she would do was admit that she was not perfect to us when we were children. Not in the justification way, but the "I really wasn't thinking of you when I said that" or "I made a really bad choice with that." sometimes she would even invited our take on the situation (obviously, not when I was four), asking "I don't like what I just did, this is why I did it, what do you think I should have done?" or "how could I make that situation better?"

    Maybe the worst part of punishment came out of this: we would have to account for ourselves and come up with what we could have done better. This was most prominently a feature of discipline when we were adolescents and the answer would be a little trickier, because it wasn't just the right answer, but the answer that we could do, that would deal with how we were feeling in the situation or the motivation to do wrong. It takes apologizing to a different level, especially because we would also talk about the reasoning behind others who hurt us.

  • Nayhee

    This is one of your best. You have managed to synthesize, within a few paragraphs, what takes YEARS for a person who was raised as you (and I) to come to. There are many layers of self-deception to sort through because we've witnessed our own parents piling them on and on and on.

    When it comes to not apologizing, to choose not to when we know we should, the poison just spreads and infects the whole relationship. I see that very clearly in one of my parents: the refusal to apologize, year after year after year. It hurts them awfully and erodes the relationship. It is a sobering lesson for me with my children.

    On the other hand, healing and reconciliation is so very simple and easy, though it requires humility, which is never simple or easy. :)

  • Carol

    Beautiful, heartfelt post. Thank you for sharing. As a child and a parent, it resonates.

  • Anonymous

    If parents don't apologize when they make a mistake, eventually kids grow up to see them as a hypocrites. Kids are happy when their parents are happy. Oprah has done more to help people than any religion, IMO. The best thing you can do for those you love is to become a happy, joyous person. That said, we are all works in progress. From my own experience as a parent, I have found that if you treat kids with kindness and respect, they are kind and respectful.

  • Chxlive

    I loved your article on apologizing to your kids. I myself figured this out early on. Why is it that adults, our friends, even strangers, are worthy of apologies, but the most important people in our lives, our children, are not? I, too, do not require apologies – what a joke. I recommend it and I explain why, and my children learned – not least from my own example. When I caught myself replaying the tapes of my own abused childhood (at the hands of my good Christian mother), like the time my son forgot something inside when we were supposed to leave, so I moved the car halfway down the block so that he could be humiliated in walking to the car, I realized what I was doing, explained to my son, apologized profusely, and promised never to do it again. And I never did. Why do parents think their children will necessarily understand being maltreated and thus absolve abusive parents of all culpability once the children reach adulthood? I personally never forgot, and I've known many others whose ill treatment at a parent's hands caused lifelong estrangement and distance. And these parents typically blame the child – "You were always difficult!" "You think you never did anything wrong!" The fact was that, in a house where physical abuse (punishment) was the norm, where admitting one had done something wrong invariably won the truth-teller physical abuse, the only hope was to attempt to tell a convincing enough lie that the abusive parent would be fooled. And, of course, abusive parents never take responsibility for forcing that upon their children because of their lack of self-control. I cannot fathom why it is that parents are allowed to do to helpless children what would land them in prison if they tried it on a fellow adult.