Dear Dr T.,
My 10-year-old daughter is a girl with lovely middos, but there is one thing about her that puzzles me. I notice that she has trouble apologizing. She either pretends nothing happened or mumbles some half-hearted, “I’m sorry.” I should add that she has been this way since she was a little girl.
We have a pretty good relationship, and I have tried talking to her, but she brushes me off.
I would like to understand her so I can help her.
The ability to apologize is critical in a human relationship. Let’s face it: In close relationships, there are inevitably little breaches and breaks. However, by apologizing, we can mend the tears and strengthen the relationship in its broken places.
When we are lucky, we get to see this process at work in our homes. We get to observe how after a careless word or thoughtless gesture, the apology works its magic. With this model of hurt-plus-repair, we learn how to address the lapses in our interactions.
This kind of learning presupposes that we parents are comfortable apologizing when appropriate. Our model goes a long way in fixing this lesson in our children’s brain. Yet, some of us are loath to apologize because we question whether it is appropriate for a parent to apologize to a child. Many of us have never experienced – nor even expected – this from our parents, and hence our reluctance runs deep.
In earlier generations, when parental authority and infallibility were absolutes, the idea of an apology from a parent was taboo. However, as our society has shifted from an authority-based to a relationship-based model, our ability to apologize to our children is seen as yet another building block in the cementing of our relationship with them. We are encouraged to look at the model of our many great leaders who freely apologized to their children when appropriate. For example, the Steipler Gaon, zt”l, used to apologize to his son, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, when he felt it was necessary.
So, to answer your question, let me ask you some of my own.
1) Do you apologize or get defensive? Can you model contrition, or do you resort to excuses, rationalizations, or denial?
Shari is having a fit: She has been waiting on the street corner – wet and freezing – for a half hour for Mom to pick her up for the orthodontist. She kvetches when Mom pulls up – finally! – and says, “You know I have been waiting for more than a half hour already! I am going to be late and miss dance practice.”
Can you be gracious, as in saying, “You are so right; I am so sorry that you had to wait?” Or do you resort to, “Do you know how busy I am? I cannot believe how selfish you are!”
2) How do you handle mistakes – yours and others? Do you subscribe to “a mistake is only a mistake” and see it as a learning opportunity, or do you treat every error as a federal offense?
You forgot to respond to your friend’s wedding invitation, and she calls you up and berates you for your thoughtlessness. Can you undertake to make every effort to respond to invites in a timely manner – or do you obsess about your lapse and talk about it again and again?
3) Is it safe to apologize in your home? Does the person apologizing have confidence that his sincere and honest apology will be well-received, or is he opening himself up to complaints, lectures, embarrassment, and shame? For us to be open and honest about our feelings, thoughts, and behavior, we need to feel that we are in an emotionally safe environment. When our emotional safety is threatened, we feel the need to do whatever we can to protect ourselves from pain and hurt.
13-year-old Shragy was playing catch with a friend and broke a window. How certain is he that while you will not be thrilled about the damage, you will accept his apology, maybe asking for reparation?(“There goes his month’s allowance!”) Or, is he certain that admitting his guilt and apologizing will bring on the insults – and in front of his friend, no less. If the latter, although Shragy feels guilty about his deed – and even worse about concealing it – he will be convinced that concealment truly is the safest course.
4) Does your family speak the language of apology? Most of us feel silly just saying “sorry” – we know it is woefully lame and would not accept such a weak excuse of an apology from others. A sincere apology is one that is freely given – with eye contact and a warm tone of voice. But, most important, a true apology always specifies what we are sorry for and how we will do better in the future.
Mom had promised the kids a special ice cream cake for Shabbos lunch – just because. The kids were really excited, debating among themselves what kind it would be, what it would look and taste like. As excited as the kids were, Mom plain-old forgot.
Well, you can only begin to imagine the disappointment and indignance. Some things mothers just don’t forget – right? Mom looks at each kid in turn and says, “I am so sorry I forgot to get the cake. There was really no good reason, and I know how much it meant to you. I have already put the cake down on next week’s shopping list to make sure that I don’t forget.” It would be a stretch to say that the kids were perfectly fine, but they did have a valuable – if painful – example of apologizing and accepting responsibility. While they all know that a mistake was made, they also know that Mom really does care about them and their feelings.
Our best bet as parents is to normalize the apology process. We all make mistakes, but we have the ability and responsibility to make repair. And, when the environment provides emotional safety, we can feel secure enough to apologize, make good, and move on.
The Book Nook: In Parenting by Design, parenting expert Rabbi Yisroel Kleinman, LMSW, helps parents identify their short-term and long-term goals for their children. Through vignettes and case studies, the author illustrates his five-level technique and how it can help parents succeed with their young children. This very readable book would be a plus in any parent’s library.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com