I apologize to my four-year-old daughter almost daily. Here's why: I'm a human and I make plenty of mistakes. She's a human and when she makes a mistake, I want her very first instinct to be to apologize. Here's the key to this process:
- Mess up. Make a mistake. It's not hard. Usually my mistakes involve a misunderstanding or my not listening, but occasionally they're more serious such as when I've been too busy to really give her attention basically the entire day and I have to apologize that her day kinda sucked and it was my fault.
- Apologize. Not a casual sorry over-the-shoulder apology, but a let's-sit-and-talk eye-to-eye apology.
- Include what you're sorry for and why you should be sorry. This teaches your child to reflect on their own actions and also gives them a sense of what sort of actions are right and wrong. I.e. "I'm sorry I wasn't listening when you were talking to me, I should have been paying attention." Something like this shows you're sorry, you know what you did wrong, you know what you should have done, and it validates the child's negative feelings about what happened.
- Hug it out and move on, either by fixing the mistake ("Tell me again") or by simply moving on if the moment has passed.
This method has worked well for us. My daughter now openly will come to us when she makes a mistake and is honest and sincere with her apology. We're not the kind of parents who let her get away with stuff all the time (she's seen her fair share of time-outs), but she knows she can come to us and tell us what she did wrong and apologize and we will talk about it and fix it. For example, this morning I was in our study and she came to me, big-lipped and teary-eyed. Without me saying anything, she said, "Mommy I'm sorry." And I asked for what. She said, "I spilled my breakfast. I wasn't supposed to be up and playing but I did and I spilled it. I'm sorry." I gave her a hug, told her it was okay, and pointed out that she needs to make sure she sits while she eats. She agreed, smiled, and went back to the kitchen to finish breakfast with my husband.
Now, consider if that interaction had occurred between two adults. One adult approaches another and apologizes for spilling food. Is the second adult going to assuage their worries and maybe offer advice on how to be more careful ("Maybe you shouldn't drink coffee while you're walking and on your phone?"), or are they going to blow up and start yelling at the other adult for not acting right and go on a tirade about how the first adult just can't do what they're supposed to?
One thing to note, and also why I believe so much in this, is that she comes to me with her apologies. My husband is a bit more authoritarian, gives more demands than requests, and is quicker to point out the faults in her actions. He's the type who's more likely to go with his knee-jerk reaction, exclaim her name, and say, "I told you so! See what happened?" and make a big fuss either verbally or with a bunch of sighs and eye-rolling when she messes up because she wasn't listening. He's also unlikely to really apologize to her for his own mistakes (and by really I mean more than just a casual "oh, sorry") unless he has really obviously hurt her feelings or I'm there to point out that he needs to apologize. I think, because of this, my daughter comes to me with almost all of her apologies. I think she expects me to be more understanding and accepting when she makes a mistake. She's also much more considerate towards me when I make a mistake, and really gets angry and lays into my husband when he makes a mistake. I usually get an "It's okay" whereas he will get a "Daddy!" and a lecture about what he did wrong.
Our kids reflect the treatment we give them. If you want a child that will admit their own faults and try to do better, be the kind of parent who does that. If you want a child that is quick to anger and lash out, be that kind of parent.
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