By Jonathan Decker, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
For some time I have been struck with just how many of my clients, while dealing with their own mental, emotional, or relational struggles, mention that they had a parent who “always had to be right,” and “never took accountability for anything.” While they cannot blame their parents for their behavior, the fact is that harmful patterns in our thinking and relationships can often be traced back to lessons learned, and examples observed, in childhood. The same is true for healthy patterns, including apologizing and taking responsibility.
For whatever reason, many parents feel that they cannot apologize to their children. Perhaps they feel that they will “lose face” by acknowledging imperfection. Maybe they see nothing wrong with their behavior or feel that it’s the child’s fault (“Look what you made me do!”)
The fact is, we’re all human and all of us make mistakes, especially as parents. Failing to apologize and to acknowledge error does far more harm than good. Here’s four reasons why owning your mistakes to your children is a very, very good thing.
You’ll earn their respect.
Think of anyone in your life who’s “never wrong” or regularly shifts blame for their behavior to someone else. Do you respect that person? Likely not, or at least not as much as the person who can say “I was wrong. I made a mistake. How can I make it right?”
They’ll follow your example.
I’m flabbergasted at the number of parents who want their children to take responsibility for misbehaving, but they (the parents) don’t model this for the kids. Everyone is responsible for their own behavior, including you. No matter what your child does, you are the adult. If you lose your temper on the heels of their misbehavior, calm down, then with love, say something like: “I want you to know that I’m sorry I got so angry. What you did was wrong, but that’s no excuse for my behavior. It was wrong that I yelled at you.”
They’ll resist correction less.
Children with unapologetic parents often feel expected to assume, disproportionately, the blame for what goes wrong in the home. They feel that their good qualities go overlooked and that they’re seen as “the problem.” Understandably they get defensive, and want to show their parents that “they’re not so perfect.” This turns into parents and children angrily pointing fingers at each other and pointing out flaws. When a child’s parents take responsibility for their own mistakes, the child doesn’t feel like he/she is “the problem.” He/she doesn’t see the parents as unfair. It makes it easier to admit their own faults and to accept correction from the parents.
It’ll bring you closer.
My mother used to say “I’m your mother, it’s not your job to correct me!” She stopped saying that when, as a young man, I challenged her with “You always tell us to respect our parents, but you need to respect us as well. If we have things we can do better, so do you, and you won’t know unless we tell you.” A lot of parents would have angrily shut that down as “sass and back-talk,” but she considered it. She modeled humility and acknowledged that I was right. From then on, she was open to feedback from me and even complaints (as long as they were respectfully delivered).
My mom and I were always close, but after that we were inseparable. By respecting me enough to hear me, and to apologize if she agreed that she’d been out of line, she endeared herself to me like never before. It meant so much to me. After that I’d gladly take correction from her, because she wasn’t asking me to do something she wouldn’t do herself.
With my own children, I sometimes allow my frustrations to get the better of me, and I’m harsher than I should be. When I step over that line, I always make sure to go in, when I’m calm, and apologize. These moments have brought us closer. I often sit next to them and put my arm around them. I don’t let them off the hook for their behavior, but I don’t blame them for mine either. The love between us always grows.
If you are a parent, it’s okay to be imperfect, and to own that imperfection to your children. It’ll help them to respect you, emulate your responsibility-taking, accept correction from you, and love you all the more.