Saying sorry is something I’ve made a conscious effort to do more of with my kids, because it helps repair the connection with them when something has happened to break it, like me nagging or getting cross at them for something they’ve done. It also role models values that are important to me, humility, self-awareness, taking responsibility and kindness.
So when my kids say sorry, I feel good. I feel they are growing, that I’m being a good dad. But recently my kids told my wife that they don’t see the point in apologising to me, because I don’t listen. This was hard for me to hear, so I asked them about it.
‘As soon as I’ve said sorry, you always bring up what I did wrong.’
I thought for a few moments and realised they were right. I do. I realised I normally say something like ‘Thank you for saying sorry. You understand why it’s not OK to…’ I realised I did this because I want to use that moment as an opportunity for them to learn. But I wasn’t timing it right.
Saying sorry is hard.
It’s hard for grown-ups to say, and we’ve probably said it thousands of times. So for a child it’s even harder. When someone says sorry, the very act of doing it brings a sense of relief. Saying sorry properly is something you can only really do when you’ve worked through the guilt, frustation and often shame. Being and saying sorry in itself takes work.
When I take them back to the moments they are apologising for, in pursuit oof learning, it squashes that relief and takes them back to the place of guilt, frustration with themelseves and, probably, shame. The very place they had worked through to get to sorry.
Instead of helping them learn, I’m doing the opposite.
My reaction is the result of not really thinking from their perspective, all it does is take them backwards, not forwards. My thinking is too short term. I wasn’t recognising the need to separate sorry out from learning how to avoid the situation that led to sorry in the first place. They are two things, that need to be addressed separately, not bundled into one.
Yes I want them to learn from their mistakes, but that can only happen when they are ready. Doing the hard work of getting through guilt, frustration and shame needs to be recognised. Only once that’s done, and they have some distance from the event itself, can they learn from it.
Helping them learn from their mistake is something that can happen later, in a conversation when the emotions from that moment have gone, when they aren’t raw anymore. Then they can look at it with a clearer head.
Now, well, mostly now, I just say ‘thank you for saying sorry.’ Then start the conversation about the mistake later. So I wasn’t as good a dad as I thought at the time, but now I’m a bit better than I was.