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.
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I recently had back-to-back conversations with two distressed mothers. One, the parent of a preschooler, described how a tantrum her four-year-old son had thrown at a public playground had left her feeling helpless and more than a shade embarrassed. The other, the mother of a college graduate, felt wrung out by her 24-year-old daughter’s failure to honor some much-discussed, carefully negotiated responsibilities.
Despite the varied circumstances and the 20-year difference in their children’s ages, both women were left with the same ache: an acute feeling that she had failed as a parent. I have little doubt that had either of these women been a witness to, rather than a participant in, the very same dramas, she would have regarded the under-siege mothers with empathy of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God variety.
But these incidents involved their children. So, each of these mothers felt that she could have handled the situation better—if only she had maintained a cool head and not let anger or impatience gain the upper hand.
It never goes away, this feeling that we parents must somehow get it right, each time, every time.
Here’s the thing: we don’t.
Here’s the other thing: like our kids, we’re only human.
That may sound obvious, but, in the course of our daily lives, we tend to juxtapose our grown-upness against our children’s immaturity. What reflects back is the enormity of the age, wisdom, and experience divide. Sure, our kids act out. They’re kids. We’re adults. We should know better than to … (pick your brand of self-poison: yell, snap, or turn a cold shoulder; play deaf, use harsh language, or threaten penalties we know we won’t enforce).
I don’t know about you, but I was at my peak as a parenting expert when I was still childless. Back then, I’d watch parents respond to a child’s provocative behavior with hapless attempts to reason or calm, and I’d think: If that were my kid, I wouldn’t put up with that! If that were my infant crying on an airplane, I’d make her stop! If that were my son mouthing off, I’d make him zip his lip! If that were my daughter not doing her chores, I’d show her who makes the rules around here!
Parenting is easy—when you’re not a parent.
For those of us who actually have kids, however, here’s what we learn while our tots are still in Onesies, then keep learning over and over as they progress from soiled diapers to school sports uniforms to seductive sundresses and staid business suits: they may be our kids, but each of them is very much his or her own person.
If you have more than one child, you witness this daily as your kids grow under your roof. While this one craves your praise and approval, that one wants you to stop telling your friends that he got a part in the school play. While this one demands your undivided attention, that one wishes you’d disappear and leave her alone. This one disintegrates into tears because she’s colored outside the lines; that one finds delight in taking crayon to freshly painted wall.
The marvel isn’t only how different they are, but how differently they respond to the same parental cues. The coaxing that works like a charm on your son’s intransigence is inflammatory nagging to your daughter’s ear. The disappointed sigh that halts your toddler’s tantrum is toxic fuel for your tween’s melodrama.
This isn’t science. This is life. Your life—and theirs. It might help to remember that the next time you’re confronted by one of life’s more challenging parenting moments. When given the benefit of distance, by all means reflect, revise, and strategize. But remember, too, that in the heat of your child’s upsetting behavior, you offered the best you could.
In other words, forgive yourself. Chances are, your child already has.
Jill Smolowe is the author of An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents