By Heidi Scrimgeour
Say sorry or we’re going home right now,’ I hissed, my cheeks turning redder with every awkward second that ticked by.
Predictably, silence followed. You can guess what happened next. Not five minutes into our much-anticipated day out at the park with friends, I was marching my three year old home on account of his stubborn refusal to apologise for repeatedly snatching his friend’s beloved toy.
Inevitably, I was much more miffed by our abandoned playdate than he was. While I stormed up the hill towards home with tears streaming down my face, I suspect he simply mused at his power, marvelling at his ability to change the course of our entire day simply by refusing to do as I asked.
Fortunately several years have passed since that fateful day and I’ve since learned the error of my ways. First, I never utter threats when trying to corral my kids into doing something unless I’m totally prepared to follow through on it, and I generally try to avoid threats that involve upsetting my plans or inconveniencing me in any way. See? I told you I’d wised up.
But much more importantly, I’ve learned to lighten up when it comes to getting my kids to apologise. That’s not to say I let them run amok without holding them to account, and nor do I leave bad behaviour unchallenged. I still encourage my kids to apologise when they’ve upset someone, but I’m less hellbent on forcing an apology from their lips at any cost.
Why? Because we’ve all seen scenarios like the one I’ve described above, wherein an ashen-faced mum attempts to wring an insincere apology from a wilful child. And we’ve learned that it’s largely pointless. What does an apology elicited under such circumstances really prove, apart from our ability to wheedle something out of our kid when push comes to shove?
And let’s be really honest, all too often these very public moments of parenting are really about our own efforts to save face, and not much to do with our children’s manners or lack thereof at all. That day in the park I felt as though my friendship with the other child’s mother was hanging in the balance; as if it’s continuation all but depended on me managing to make my kid say sorry. It’s silly, really, and as it happens we’re still firm friends almost a decade on, despite that unforthcoming apology.
Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned about kids and saying sorry; what really matters, if you care about teaching your kid the power of an apology, is being quick to say sorry yourself when you get things wrong. I twigged pretty early on in my parenting journey that I was going to have to get good at saying sorry if I had any hope of staying in good relationship with my kids. How can we expect our kids to value saying sorry if it’s something they never see us do? I’m not advocating grovelling to your kids or begging their forgiveness every time you raise your voice or reply snappily to their tenth question of the hour instead of sweetly in your best Mary Poppins tone. But I think it pays to teach kids that no-one’s perfect, not even Mum, and that most misdemeanours and mistakes are easily fixed with a heartfelt ‘Sorry’.
There’s also a school of thought which says that coercing kids to apologise robs them of the opportunity to learn how to say sorry when they truly mean it.
And perhaps it’s selfish but my favourite part of being quick to dispense with apologies where my kids are concerned is that they’ve become adept at granting pardon. No sooner have I apologised for losing my patience whilst trying to herd them out the door for school, and they’re appeasing my guilt with forgiveness and assurances that their dawdling and squabbling pretty much justified my fishwife act.
I’m joking, partly, but my kids’ capacity to accept an apology graciously and extend an olive branch in return is one of the things I most admire about them. And it’s strangely reassuring to realise that they’ve developed that in part because I don’t shy away from admitting when I get things wrong, and seeking swiftly to put them right.
Just as there are few things uglier than a grimacing child growling a reluctant sorry, there’s nothing quite so heartwarming as a child issuing a heartfelt, honest apology.
A friend recently remarked on my readiness to say sorry to my kids. It’s something she rarely if ever does, on account of having been raised in a family where the adults never admitted any flaw or failing to the kids. She says she longs to be able to acknowledge her imperfections to her children, and feels they’d be less defensive when they get things wrong if sorry was a more freely-flowing word in her household.
Which is sort of funny, because the most useful piece of parenting advice anyone has ever given me is this: It’s never too late to make repair. It was uttered by a child psychologist I was interviewing for a feature, and it’s a sentence that has stuck with me ever since.
Why? Because don’t all parents occasionally harbour the secret worry that we might have irreparably damaged our kids in some way? You don’t have to be a monster to sometimes fear that the little things we all get wrong - the times we’re snappy and impatient or over-react to some normal childish misdemeanour - might have messed things up beyond repair. It’s a measure of how much we love our kids and want to do the best by them that we’re prone to worry that we might somehow screw it all up. And isn’t the promise that nothing is irredeemable one of the most positive and inspiring things we can hope to pass on to our kids? I think so.
Which leads neatly to one final thought. My surly pre-teen called his grandfather this afternoon to apologise for being cheeky earlier in the day. A sweet, heartfelt conversation ensued, whereby my dad graciously accepted the apology and the two agreed to put the moment behind them and move on.
Once the call was over, my son glanced in my direction and raised an eyebrow. ‘Am I still on a screen ban for being rude?’ he asked, and I winced at the realisation that he was about to retract his apology if it couldn’t earn him the reprieve he hoped it would.
‘Yes,’ I said sternly. ‘An apology given in order to get something isn’t a real apology,’ I lectured. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I was just going to say I don’t think you should let me off the hook just because I apologised.’
Now maybe this kid’s smarter than he looks and that was an effort at reverse psychology - or maybe that psychologist was right. It never is too late to make repair, and my readiness to say sorry when it’s due is paying off in a young man who’s learning how to make amends and really mean it.
And yes, incase you were wondering, the screen ban stuck.
Various, MADE magazine