I don’t apologize to my kids. Ever. And whenever this comes up at a workshop or course that I am teaching it sets a lot of parents off. It turns out, we are collectively uncomfortable with the idea of not apologizing. And yet, apologizing has an important core problem when it comes to capably being the nurturing guide to our children’s development.
I don’t apologize to my kids. Ever.
To make sense of this, the hierarchical nature of the parent-child relationship must be understood. As a starting place, humans are a social species, which means the relational environment that children grow in is everything. And because children will have their most powerful relationships with their primary caregivers – typically their parents – then the relationship children have with their parents is ultimately central to their growth. In fact, all of the research exploring the science of child development suggests clearly that the parent-child relationship provides THE foundation upon which everything else to do with healthy child development rests. It drives the neural-architecture of the brain, and writes a narrative upon the child’s heart of who they are in this big crazy world.
The hierarchy within the parent-child relationship is at the heart of what makes the relationship work for the child. This hierarchy must line up so that parents are in the lead. The parent’s job is to be big enough, capable enough, and certain enough to create an experience of relational safety for the child. The child’s job is to lean into the parent’s provision of leadership, to pursue contact and closeness, and to turn up the volume on securing the certainty of such if it should feel at any point like it is faltering.
So parents lead and provide. Children seek and lean in. And never, ever can these roles shift or be reassigned to the other. If you think parenting is a challenging gig just normally, attempting to raise up a child who is in the lead of you is an impossible feat. It will exhaust and overwhelm you because you will be forever running from behind, trying to catch up and get yourself back in the lead, while your child commands you to stay in the race and gives you pointers on just how to run better and faster. It’s an awful experience for everyone involved, and can be catastrophic in terms of outcomes longer term for the child.
So how does a parent stay in the lead? To be in the lead the parent must remain emotionally safe, ultimately nurturing, and full of what I call “swagger” most of the time. Swagger is understanding that while you may not know all of the answers as a parent to your child, you sure can BE the answer. It is in how you walk and talk. The look in your eyes. The certainty of your parenting step. The small things that add up to something big for a child.
It is in how you walk and talk. The look in your eyes. The certainty of your parenting step. The small things that add up to something big for a child.
To be this kind of parent, you have to be pretty grown-up. And I don’t just mean in the physical form. I mean emotionally grown-up,. This includes recognizing that happiness is an inside job. Being grown means that you ultimately accept you have no needs from others around you in order to feel peace, love, and joy. You can give all of that to yourself as a fully developed human being. Sure it is lovely to commune in peace, love, and joy with others. But your fully independent, capable adult self doesn’t need these things. There is a difference between need and enjoyment.
Which brings us back to the central problem of apologizing. Apologizing carries with it a need. In offering an “I’m sorry,” there is a yearning or even a direct request for forgiveness. We say “I am sorry” and seek to be absolved of whatever wrong we have committed through the securing of forgiveness. So now imagine that the wrong was against your child. You shouted. You were unkind. Feel the energy and need in you as you approach your child to say that you are sorry. There is indeed a need buried in that apology. You need your child to absolve you. You need their forgiveness to know that all is okay between you and them. And right at this juncture we slam into the problem.
Stop and consider in that very moment who is in the lead? It isn’t you. It is your child. And they are in the lead because you put them there. There is a burden placed upon your child’s shoulders in your apology and commensurate seeking of forgiveness. The child must now perform an act that provides the parent release. You are officially running from behind trying to catch up.
As you read this and maybe feel a wave of guilt for all the times you have put your child in this position, or perhaps a wave of defensiveness about how bad could apologizing really be, I invite you to think for just a moment where you come from. For me, I am Canadian, born into a religious family. I basically came out of the womb apologizing. It was the culture all around me. “Ask and ye shall be forgiven.” And, when we look around it is readily apparent that this is the broader culture for most of us, regardless of our specific childhood roots. We apologize and seek forgiveness as a general tenet for how we co-exist as humans. So of course you’ve been asking your children for forgiveness.
If no apologies, then what?
You might now be wondering, if no apologies, then what? Just like every other human I have moments of impatience and anger that spill over on to my now 12 and 15 year old children. And while you won’t find me racing in with apologies, you will find me stepping in to take ownership and make things right – from a place within myself that has no demands whatsoever of my children. They can accept it. Or not. And I will be solid. I will care for myself and my needs – the very ones that likely fuelled my impatience or anger in the first place – so that my children don’t have to. I will be in the lead so that they can be emotionally at rest. I will preserve the nurturing hierarchy of our relationship.
What does it look like when I step in and make things right? There are 4 basic parts to it. Once I have taken a moment (or several) to care for myself and calm down, I will seek out my child. First, I will join with him in whatever he has happening in that moment so as to invite an experience of connection, perhaps by asking after the book he is reading or commenting on the model he is building. Second, I will let him know that I want to talk about what happened earlier, and I’ll communicate that I wasn’t happy with my impatient/angry/etc. way of reacting. Third, I will tell him that I will be thinking about this going forward so that it isn’t as likely to happen, even though we are all humans and we will all have our moments. And finally, I will assuredly let him know that no matter what, he and I are good. That I love him now and forever, regardless of whatever happens.
And then I flow back into the activities of the moment. Aware always of what it is that I must give myself so that my children don’t have to. Aware always of protecting them from having to feel the weight of growing up and care-taking of me. No apologies. No burdens. Just growth for them. And for me.