A timely question that many parents ask is, “is it appropriate to apologize to one’s young children?”The answer is a resounding yes, and a resounding no! Like all good questions, the answer depends on a number of factors.
As we intensify efforts to request forgiveness from family, friends and colleagues in the pre-Yom Kippur rush, our young children should definitely not be on such a general list. Asking for Mechila from our peers conveys that message – we are equals. To apologize to our children for being a strict parent, for taking away privileges, for raising our voice from time to time turns the parent-child relationship upside down. We have every right and it is our responsibility to guide our children in the right path. Reflecting upon a year of parenting with apologies and requests for forgiveness from the children can only undermine our position of authority and respect.
What about during the heat of the moment? We all have occasions when we get upset, we say a sharp word or an unkind word. What happens when we fail to deliver on a promise or when circumstances force us to disappoint a child? These are appropriate situations for an apology – even to a young child, for two important reasons. Firstly, when the focus of the apology is on a specific incident, it is the right thing to do. Apologies for hurting a person’s feelings, intentionally or otherwise are necessary to help fix whatever hurt there is. It doesn’t matter whether the one with hurt feelings is 4 or 104.
Secondly, the most effective teaching is by example. When your child sees that his parent can admit to and takes ownership of a mistake, reaches out to soothe hurt feelings and demonstrates honesty and sensitivity in asking a child to forgive him about something specific, at an appropriate time in the aftermath of the incident, it sends the most powerful lesson imaginable in the area of responsibility, humility, self-respect and kindness.
An apology should be simple, direct and sincere. A parent should demonstrate that when appropriate, an apology should be forthcoming right away. There should be no strings attached. “I’m sorry I mistakenly accused you of hitting the baby, but you do it so often I was sure…” is not acceptable. “I apologize for assuming you spilled the milk and didn’t clean it up – you usually are the one who makes such a mess,” should be better left unsaid.
Apologies, taking ownership of a mistake are appropriate and provide a great role model for your child. The best role model we can be is not to pretend we are perfect, because we are not perfect (and they are going to figure that out,) but to admit we make mistakes (not too many!) and to be an example of one who apologizes and grows and does better. However, being obsequious and putting yourself on a par with your child, showing you are in need of your child’s forgiveness is a dangerous and counterproductive path. Children need to feel secure that we are capable and confidently taking care of them. Common sense and a clear picture of the parent’s role will help establish us as authoritative without being authoritarian, kind and compassionate, without being weak and not in control.
To err is human – to apologize appropriately is to be divinely inspired.
In that spirit, please forgive me and our staff for anything inappropriate we may have said or done, or for anything we failed to say or do and may we all merit, together with our wonderful children, a year of health, growth and Nachas.
G’mar Chasima Tova
Rabbi Kalman BaumannPrincipal