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Should You Really Apologize to Your Kids? [Video]

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I have heard from not a few parents over the years who have admitted the difficulty they have in apologizing to their children. On the one hand, I totally get it. I have three children myself. Assuming one is not verbally or physically abusing their children, it’s easy to justify not apologizing to our children with excuses such as: “I’m the parent, so I’m right, even if I had to make them cry to understand that,” or “I don’t have to live by the same expectations I hold my kids to. For example, if I don’t clean my plate after dinner, that’s no big deal. So why do I have to apologize for every tiny infraction?” or “They’re just kids. They don’t understand all the ways of the world yet and haven’t learned that not every feeling has to be validated.”

So yes, if you truly believe: 1) your might and position as a parent makes you right, 2) you don't need to model what you tell your kids to do, and 3) offending kids doesn't matter since they are kids and don’t deserve an apology or their feelings validated, then I probably won’t be able to convince you otherwise. 

On the other hand, most of us would humbly say we actually do need to apologize to our children sometimes since, as parents, though we may have “might” over our kids, that does not mean we are infallible. We also need to exemplify saying "I am sorry" because we expect them to say that. And, they are little people with real feelings that need to be acknowledged, and seeking their forgiveness validates their feelings. 

Let's consider these three points.

Might does not make right

To argue that I am the adult in the position of authority and therefore don't need to apologize because I am unquestionably right is to argue a parent is perfect. Of course, we all know we are not perfect, but even here some contend that if we seek forgiveness for imperfections, this will undermine our credibility and authority as the parent. 

But, if I am wrong, I need to apologize for wronging my child, whether I intended to wrong them or not. I am not excused because I am the parent. Furthermore, our honesty about our shortcomings and how we were wrong for hurting them will increase our credibility with our kids over time, not decrease it (unless we get worse, and then our apologies will be seen as insincere).

The Bible is clear about two things regarding this topic. One, we need to confess our sin to another person, according to James 5:16. That can be to a spiritual leader, but it is implied that we confess to the person we previously wronged. Two, we need to reconcile with the person we offended, according to Jesus (Matthew 5:23–24). 

In studying what James and Jesus teach, we learn that when we ignore these two scriptures we hinder our personal healing and our relationship with God. So, there is an incentive beyond parenting in speaking honestly and humbly about what we did that missed the mark. 

I find it fascinating that there’s no account in scripture of a parent apologizing to a child. However, that does not mean parents who wronged their children did not have to make things right. 

In reading about King Saul, we learn how horrible he was toward Jonathan, his son, and David, the future king. Everyone who reads 1 Samuel observes the extent to which Saul was a jealous, paranoid, and violent man toward David and Jonathan. 

We read in 1 Samuel 20:30, "Then Saul’s anger burned against Jonathan, and he said to him, 'You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!'" And, then in verse 33, "Then Saul hurled his spear at him to strike and kill him; so Jonathan knew that his father had decided to put David to death." 

Saul had severe problems as a parent. He never humbly and sincerely confessed his sin. Nor did he reconcile with Jonathan, whom he offended. I am sure Saul thought, "I don't have to apologize. I am the king."

We need to model what we mouth

What we expect them to do insofar as apologizing to others they have wronged, we need to model in front of them under the assumption we make mistakes and need to apologize. 

As we know, things are better caught than taught. It makes no sense to a child for a parent to preach the necessity of forgiveness, but they never seek our forgiveness. 

This profoundly troubled my wife, Sarah, about her mom. Sarah often commented that her mom did something that required an apology, but her mom never said she was sorry. Sarah would then comment, "And I knew she was wrong, and she knew she was wrong." To this day, Sarah feels more pain from the lack of apology than from her mom's infraction. Sarah cannot recall the offense, only the lack of apology. Yet, her mom expected her to apologize, and Sarah told me how it hit her one day as a young person, "Why does my mom demand that I apologize, but she never does?" That's why we often hear the detrimental effect of hypocrisy: "Do as I say, not as I do." Parenting must not be the art of preaching values to our kids that we pretend to have as adults. That's wearing the mask of virtue. That's like a Baptist preaching water but drinking wine.

We need to validate the feelings of these little people

An apology acknowledges the child's hurt feelings, admits that we are responsible for wronging them, and reassures them that they are not to blame for us hurting their feelings. 

I recall when my dad worked in the backyard cleaning out the septic tank, and his knee came out of the socket, which apparently had happened before from a football injury he had earlier in life. (On a side note, he had never coached me on what to do if his knee came out of the socket.) Writhing in pain, he screamed for me to pull hard on his leg to extend it so it would pop back in the socket, but I was small and did not have the strength or weight to do that, and he yelled at me in anger to pull harder. Finally, I pulled just right, and his knee returned to the socket. He laid back in relief like he had entered paradise. Though I recognized, as a young boy, that his anger came at me from his pain, he never apologized for screaming at me in anger for not doing it right. I never remember him saying, "I am sorry for getting so angry and yelling at you." He left me isolated and hanging there with my hurt, as though my feelings didn't matter or were invalid. 

As an adult looking back, I conjecture that I felt I had no right to bring up my hurt, or maybe I didn't know how to put that into words, but in either case, the expectation was to get over it and move on. In assessing that episode over six decades later, I see the irony. Because he was in physical pain, I had to help solve his problem with pain. But he could yell at me and cause me pain but did not have to help me solve my problem with the emotional pain he caused me. 

If only Dad had said, "I am truly sorry. I was out of line for exploding in anger at you. You did not deserve that. I know I hurt your feelings. You did nothing wrong. I was the one who was wrong. You are not to blame for anything that happened here. Do you know that? Will you forgive me?" 

That would not have undermined his authority as a parent. Instead, it would have modeled for me how to confess and reconcile, and validated my feelings that what I had just experienced was unloving and unfair.

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. Do you recall your parents ever apologizing to you when you were younger? What kind of effect did their apology (or lack of apology) have on you? Have you ever had reason to apologize to your own kids? Did you? Why or why not?
  2. In what ways does the argument “I am the adult in the position of authority and therefore don't need to apologize because I am unquestionably right” fall apart?
  3. How can a parent who has to ask his or her child for their forgiveness use this episode to teach the gospel to their child?
  4. In sharing about the time with his dad when his knee popped out of the socket, Emerson noted that the expectation was for him to “get over it and move on.” Why is that not a healthy option, though it may appear to be so at the time, at least to the parent?