We lead by example. Sometimes, we lead by bad example, and “Do as I say, not as I do,” can be very sound advice to a child. But it’s not the most important or powerful phrase a parent ever uttered – it’s more of a last ditch hope that our children won’t follow in our own flawed footsteps.
I believe the most powerful words we can say to our children are “I’m sorry.” The world is full of people who are afraid to own up to their own mistakes or apologize for the harm or hurt feelings they’ve caused others. We teach our children that they ought to apologize when they do something wrong, but how many times do we, as parents, model that behavior in front of them – or more importantly, towards them?
Mom and Dad are not always right. Oh, sure, my dad used to joke, “I may not always be right, but I’m never wrong!” but he was quick to admit his mistakes and apologize for them. Not the weaselly sort of apology we hear, all too often: “I’m sorry if you took that the wrong way,” but “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” or “I’m sorry, I made a mistake, I shouldn’t have done that.” It taught me accountability at a young age, by making it clear that everyone makes mistakes and everyone has to own up and say they’re sorry. No one is above “the law.”
But why is this so powerful?
Coupled with a sincere effort at restitution – at making things right – an apology can utterly disarm the other person’s anger and resentment. A child, naturally inclined towards righteous indignation and rebellion against authority, has nothing to rebel against when a parent apologizes. It is humility and justice in action. It demonstrates that the world is, indeed, fair – at least some of the time – and that this “authority” known as Mom or Dad doesn’t set itself above what’s right and fair and just. At its most basic, it shows that an apology will not, in fact, kill you – but may make the wronged party feel much more kindly towards you, instantly. It is an exercise in empathy and compassion. Few children can hold a grudge against a parent for more than a few hours, and even a small child realizes how much better it feels to forgive. There is power in forgiveness.
For a child who grows up apologizing to adults, but never hearing an apology from an adult, adulthood becomes a powerful state of being where you can get by with hurting others with impunity. But unlike small children, other adults do manage to hold grudges and harbor resentment, anger, and even hatred when they’ve been wronged and contrition is withheld or justice has been denied them. Inevitably, there is a backlash – something as minor as being disliked by those around us, or as major as terrorism and war.
Being courageous and humble enough to apologize to a child helps to create kinder adults who don’t feel that they will be robbed of their power by admitting their own wrongs and apologizing to a child or to other adults their words or actions have hurt. The world will be a better place for it.