The Most Powerful Words We Can Say to Our Children

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.


5 thoughts on “The Most Powerful Words We Can Say to Our Children”

  1. It is powerful enough to be the only charge laid upon us in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our trespasses AS WE FORGIVE those who trespass against us.’

    Imagine if nations did that.

    NO one is without guilt or fault or bad judgment sometime.

    And it’s far easier to admit responsibility, apologize, and make amends before you’ve added denial and other attempts to weasel out (“Oh, come on. You know I didn’t mean it when I called you …”) to the load you should eventually apologize for.

    We’ve been watching The Sopranos, and it seems every episode has something that could have been cleared up by an apology and a bit of change. For dramatic purposes – and those actors and writers are portraying mobsters – we run the conflict up.

    It is less interesting – and far less painful – to cut out the drama sooner and do ‘the right thing.’ Which is often the hardest thing.

    1. Oh, yes. Imagine if nations did that.

      Some have. On the eve of destruction, and perhaps with little choice, they have. And they’ve survived, even thrived. It shouldn’t be hard to do the right thing, as you say. And we shouldn’t wait until there’s no other option. We should be big enough, brave enough, and humble enough to do it quickly and without reservation.

      It’s a good point you made about it being the ONLY charge laid on us in the Lord’s Prayer. So, so very true.

      1. Just wanted to add that I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with things that are NOT fixable, such as ISIS and Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.

        I pray about those – and we have to protect the victims. And keep the perpetrators from getting their way. Very hard.

  2. Doing the best we can is often not enough.
    Explaining to our kids that is our goal, that there is no instruction manual that accompanies their birth, that we can only use the processes by which we were raised (as examples of how to…or in my case, how the hell not to, do things…..

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