By: Sara Teichman
This question was a no-brainer to our grandparents and perhaps our parents as well. Parents were thought to be always in the right. The very idea of them apologizing was considered ludicrous, to say the least. Yet, the ability to apologize is critical in all human relationships. Let’s face it: in close relationships there are inevitably little breaches and breaks. However, by apologizing we mend the tears and strengthen the relationship.
When we are lucky, we get to see this process at work in our homes. We get to observe how, after a careless word or thoughtless gesture, the apology works its magic. With this model of hurt/repair, we learn how to address the lapses in our daily interactions with others.
However, this kind of learning presupposes that the parents are comfortable apologizing when appropriate, fixing this lesson in their children’s brain. Yet some of us parents loathe to apologize. We question whether it is appropriate for a parent to apologize to a child. Many of us have never experienced, nor even expected, this from our parents and hence our reluctance runs deep.
In earlier generations, when parental authority and infallibility were absolutes, the idea of an apology from parent to child was taboo. However, as our society has shifted from an authority based to a relationship based model, our ability to apologize to our children is seen as yet another building block in the cementing of our relationship with them.
We are encouraged to look at the model of the many gedolim who freely apologized to their children when appropriate. For example, Rabbi Dov Brezak, a parenting authority in the orthodox world and a noted Yated columnist, notes that the Steipler Goan used to apologize to his son, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, when appropriate.
Short of asking your children how you do in the apology department, you can evaluate yourself by asking the following questions.
Shari is having a fit. She has been waiting for a half an hour on the street corner, wet and freezing, for her mother to pick her up for the orthodontist. She kvetches when her mom finally pulls up and says, “You know I have been waiting for more than a half hour already! I am going to be late and miss dance practice.”
You can be gracious as in, “You are so right; I am so sorry that you had to wait?” rather than resort to “Do you know how busy I am? I cannot believe how selfish you are!”
Thirteen-year-old Joey was playing catch with a friend and broke a window. Can he know, with some degree of certainty, that you will not be thrilled about the damage but will accept his apology and maybe ask for reparation? [There goes this month’s allowance!] Or, does he need to play innocent because admitting his guilt and apologizing will bring on the insults – and in front of his friend, no less? Though Joey feels guilty about his deed and even worse about concealing it – it truly is the safest course.
Mom had promised the kids a special ice cream cake for shabbos lunch- just because. The kids were really excited, debating among themselves what kind it would be, what it would look and taste like. As excited as the kids were, Mom simply forgot – no reason.
Well, you can only begin to imagine the disappointment and indignance. Some things mothers just don’t forget! Mom looks at each kid in turn and says, “I am so sorry I forgot to get the cake. There was really no good reason and I know how much it meant to you. I have already put the cake down on next week’s shopping list to make sure that I don’t forget.” It would be a stretch to say that the kids were perfectly fine, but they did have a valuable, if painful, example of apologizing and accepting responsibility. They could acknowledge that a mistake was made but know that Mom really does care about them and their feelings.
Our best bet as parents is to normalize the apology process. We all make mistakes, but we have the ability and responsibility to make a repair. When the environment provides emotional safety, we can feel secure enough to apologize, make good, and move on. We can arise to the occasion and set the tone by deciding that yes, I should apologize to my child.
Dr. Sara Teichman, formerly of Los Angeles, California, now resides in Lakewood, New Jersey where she provides therapy for individuals, couples, and families. To contact Dr. Teichman, call 323 940 1000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.