My daughter shares her millennial generation’s intolerance for all non-instantaneous forms of communication. That includes voice mail. If she calls and I don’t answer, she simply hangs up, leaving me to speculate whether she’d merely wanted to chat, or been kidnapped. So when I saw that she’d left a message on my phone a couple of weeks ago, I wondered what she had considered important enough to merit the effort. It turned out that she hadn’t felt either chatty or imperiled, only unhappy about having snapped at me before she’d left the house that morning. “I’m sorry I was so cranky, Mom,” she said, sounding contrite. “I was just in a bad mood; I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. Please forgive me.”
It wasn’t hard to do, especially since it had been she and her brother who’d taught me how to do it by always forgiving me for my own intermittent crankiness when they were growing up. In fact, if I’d been the one to teach them how important it was to apologize—to say they were sorry for calling another kid “stupid head,” or for accidently riding a scooter up some unsuspecting pedestrian’s leg—they’d been the ones to teach me how important it was to forgive.
I remember one particularly fraught morning when my daughter, then age seven, and I exchanged this bilateral lesson. I had an early appointment to get to, but despite my urging her to hurry, she was still dawdling dreamily over her bagel only minutes before the school bus was due to arrive.
Exasperated—and suddenly noticing that the feet she was swinging languidly under the kitchen table were bare of shoes and socks—I went into overdrive. In a loud, angry voice, I let loose a string of accusations about her total lack of cooperation, her nonexistent sense of responsibility, and her general inability to focus on anything important. The feet abruptly stopped swinging, and a hurt and startled face turned in my direction.
“Now go and put on your shoes,” I finished sternly, and she quietly left the table. But the image of that wounded little face remained, and I realized almost immediately that I’d reacted too fiercely to her lackadaisical, but hardly criminal, behavior. A moment later, I followed her into her bedroom and sat down next to her as she pulled on her socks.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” I said. And then, realizing that “sorry” wasn’t enough, I explained my behavior and took back the global accusations that I had made about her character. “I think I got so angry because I’m worried about getting to an appointment. I know you can be very cooperative, and I apologize for saying you’re not.” I put my arms around her, and was relieved to feel her squeeze me back.
A year or two earlier, my still-gangly adolescent son unaccountably decided to join his high school’s wrestling team. When he asked me to buy him a $40 team sweatshirt, I flatly refused, reminding him that he was already in possession of a school sweatshirt, and that money didn’t grow on trees, at least not on our trees. I ended this non-discussion by admonishing him not to ask me again.
Two weeks later, his dad and I went to see his team compete against another school. I watched as, one-by-one, his teammates trotted into the gym wearing dark blue, zip-up sweatshirts, with the name of their high school and “Wrestling” spelled out in gold lettering on the back. In contrast, my son’s old pullover—faded from many washings, a bit short in the sleeves—looked pretty pathetic. I realized how embarrassed he must have felt in it, and on our way home after the match, I whispered an apology (of sorts) in his ear: “Order the dumb sweatshirt!”
Whenever I apologized to my children—for flying off the handle and saying hurtful things I didn’t really mean, for overreacting to some annoying piece of behavior, for answering no to a request without considering the reasons behind it, for any piece of unjust behavior that I regretted—I was trying to convey to them several important messages. Above all, I was trying to make it clear to them that I cared about their feelings, that I cared enough to take the time to judge my actions, to ask myself whether I was being too harsh or unfair, to check whether my behavior stemmed more from my own stress than from their misdeeds. My apology told them how important they were to me, how high a priority they had in my heart.
It also modeled the sort of behavior I wanted them to make their own, showing them what it meant to listen to the stirrings of regret they would inevitably hear from time to time for having treated another person badly. I wanted them to see that being in the wrong wouldn’t kill them or irreparably harm their relationships with those they cared for, not if they took the time to make things right.
I know I can’t protect my children from all the injustice in the world—but I can protect them from my own. By apologizing to them, which I still do now that they are grown, I’m letting them know they can count on me to be fair, to recant an undeserved rebuke, or rethink an ill-considered decision. I’m illustrating how acknowledging hurtful behavior toward others is an important way of maintaining their trust. People you apologize to learn they can count on you to be on the up-and-up with them, always. And isn’t that the way we want our kids to feel about us?
Bette-Jane Raphael is a journalist and a writing coach at The City College of New York. She has two children.