Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Another Parenting Thought: Apologizing for My Children

On a somewhat different topic, one that was prompted by a comment I received yesterday, I thought I'd share with you my thoughts about kids and apologies.

I'm being fairly candid in these posts about various thoughts I have about how I want to parent my kids.  It also feels a little scary, for at least a few reasons:
  • First, I am a very flawed parent and in no way want you to think that these notions I aspire to are an indicator that I am always living them out.  My intentions are often just that - unacted-upon intentions.  You will see this if you get together with the kids and me!  Through I strive for this, I am not always a consistent parent; I come from a strongly behaviouralistic outlook that I am trying desperately-but-not-always-successfully to change, and I often display hyocritical tendencies when my own frustrations arise.  
  • Second, I'm not judging you.  If you espouse different parenting ideas, that happen to be different than mine, skip these posts by all means.  I'm interested in how I parent my children and am willing to share some of those thoughts with you here, but have no desire to make a statement about your parenting style or your kids!
  • Third, I'm not any kind of parenting guru and I am speaking about things that I haven't always entirely thought through myself - I'm not the best spokesperson or advocate for communicating these parenting ideas, and I know that.  I would be entirely happy if these, and other, posts that I am writing point you in the direction of being more interested in Dr. Gordon Neufeld, because it's my draw to his work that has helped me implement changes to my parenting style; and although I think his book Hold On To Your Kids is good, and a good introduction to his work, the courses/workshops/DVDs are a thousand times better.  I am scared of how my words might occasionally distract from his work because he's the expert.  He is absolutely brilliant, in my view, and so counter-culture that it's a little daunting.  I only wish I could crawl into his brain because he's so far down the road that I want to be on! :)
  • Fourth, as I just mentioned, these are mostly not mainstream parenting philosophies (unfortunately, in my opinion), and I have often had eyebrows raised in my direction or opposing forces expressed in face of a unique parenting approach I'm working on.  So I'm feeling more than a little 'out there' in telling you a few of my beliefs and ideals about parenting...and yet also know that I've got a gazillion additional things that I'd love to be chatting with you about along the same line.
  • Fifth, the jury's still out, right?  My kids are young and, in a sense, are my guinea pigs for a parenting approach that I see as being a kinder, gentler, more natural/instinctive approach that encourages them to attach and depend on their parents.  It's going to be another decade or more before we really see the fruits of today's labours!

One final comment before I dive in to today's topic:  I find these things difficult and somewhat time-consuming to write out and questions difficult to answer, so I hope you'll bear with me a little.  I haven't had time to do much editing or word-smithing, so my writing here is a little unrefined.  My time to write is very limited, and almost non-existent during the day when I have three other all-consuming demands on my time and energy.

So, now, back to my kids and my thoughts on apologies.

The behaviouralist in me likes to have my kids apologize when they mess up.  It's innate how badly I want to say "apologize to your sister/brother" or "say sorry for x-y-z."

But that's not the way I aspire to be...and, increasingly, that's not the way I'm choosing to parent.

When I slip up and I hear myself demanding that my child apologize for something, moments later (usually too late) I hear a little alarm bell going off in my head and I feel like slapping my behaviouralistic self and telling that self to smarten up and re-orient to the developmentalist parent that I'm trying to become.

The mother I aspire to be, and the mother I usually am these days, doesn't make her kids apologize for something.  Why?  Because a forced apology is just words, and has nothing to do with the heart.  The forced apology is, in my view, only for show:  So that we frustrated parents can feel like we're doing something about our child's behaviour; and so that others can feel apologized to.

But what I know for sure is this:  a forced apology has nothing to do with the apologizer feeling actual remorse.  Remorse, regret, feeling sorry - these things are not something we can teach or discipline or force our child into feeling.  Those things will come as part of a maturation process when our child begins to understand the impact of his/her own actions on another person...and the only way to aid this process as a parent is to help our child achieve or maintain a soft heart (rather than hardened or defended hearts).

Now, I'm not going to prevent my child from apologizing for a wrong-doing.  I love it when my children choose to apologize from a heartfelt place.  That's an awesome sign of some kind of maturity happening (even if these apologies happen only sporadically).  But I don't usually find that my kids really want to offer the apology - and for sure not at the critical moment in time when they commit the offence.

Think about the last time you said/did something you later regretted?  If, immediately after that happened, someone dragged you over to the person you hurt and demanded that you apologize for what you'd said/done, would that feel genuine to you?  Of course not; you're still in the same temper that you were in just a second ago when you said or did whatever it was to hurt the other person.  And how would you feel towards the person who dragged you over to apologize?  Would you feel warmly, or more than a little resentful that the frustration that led to your behaviour wasn't being respected or known or understood.  

How much more effective it would be if we could just sit with our frustration a bit, and maybe let regret for our actions take root, at which point we might voluntarily want to offer an I'm sorry.  I don't know - it just makes sense to me!

So what do I do??

I can almost hear you asking me that question.

How can we get our kids to take responsibility for hurting someone else?  I'll answer this second question first by saying that we can't.  I don't believe that we can make our children feel responsible - that's only going to come as they mature and if their hearts stay soft so that they can feel another's pain as a result of their actions.

So that leaves us with the 'so what do I do?' question.

Here's what I usually do (and what I aspire to do all of the time until my kids are motivated to do it for themselves):  I apologize for them.  I recognize that the offending child does not feel sorry at that moment, but also see that the other child (and perhaps the other child's parent, if the offended child is not my own) needs to hear an apology for the wrong done to him.  So I do the work and model it for the offender in the hopes that, if s/he sees me do it often enough, at some point it'll become part of their own maturation process.

I'll give you an example.  It happened about three years ago, but it is the example that stays with me the most strongly because it was the first time I consciously and deliberately implemented this strategy that had been festering in my mind for some time.

Matthew and I were with friends, and the kids were playing in the snow, near where we moms were sitting outside.  I don't remember how things escalated, but all of the sudden I saw Matthew shove another child into the deep snow - not very hard, but I could tell by the look on his face that it was a retaliation attempt that wasn't meant kindly.  Unfortunately, the other child hit himself on a piece of concrete wall that was buried unseen in the snow, and he began to cry.

The other mom went over to comfort her child and I brought Matthew over to me.  I didn't reprimand him (I felt like it but that would have been only for my benefit - he wasn't able to hear it in that moment because he was still frustrated), but asked if he was ok.  I hugged him.  He was ok, he told me, and added that he'd just pushed his friend over and that he got hurt.  I said that I'd noticed that his friend had gone down and that he (Matthew) looked frustrated.  I said that I was sorry that I hadn't caught his frustration earlier, to have prevented the shove.  Matthew looked relieved.  I noticed around then that the other child had stopped crying and was moving back into a playing position.  I took Matthew's hand and asked him to come with me.  I'm sure Matthew thought I was going to have him apologize to the friend.  But I said that I would do the talking.  Again, relief and, I think, gratitude - Matthew's hand gripped mine tightly.  My thought in that moment:  He's holding me hard...attachment is still there between us...I haven't made anything worse between us by anything I said to make him feel ashamed.  Good.

We walked over to his little friend and I crouched down to his eye level, still holding Matthew's hand.  I said something like, "R, I'm so sorry that you got hurt just now.  I got involved too late to stop what happened, but I saw that you were pushed down and got hurt, and I feel terrible about that.  Are you ok?"  I didn't mention Matthew's name because I didn't want to shame him, but I think the other child felt genuinely apologized to; he happily accepted my apology and I thanked him.  I looked Matthew in the eye and told him that I loved him; he said that he loved me, too.  Then he ran off to play with his friend.

Because I often think that mothers need apologies, too, for actions against their children, I also apologized (when the children weren't close enough to hear) to the other mother for her son being hurt by mine, and said that these were things that I was working on at home with Matthew (who was/is, frankly, a very gentle and sensitive soul, but there are always things to work on!).  As expected, she graciously accepted the apology and we went on to have a lovely time together.  In the end, everyone who needed it was apologized to in a heartfelt manner, my kid wasn't shamed and he wasn't forced to issue an apology he didn't mean and he also was given time to think/feel his way through what he'd done.  Oh, and he got to see me model the kind of apology I hoped he would someday issue.

A day or two later, when Matthew and I were cuddled up under a blanket in our library reading a book, I brought up the subject of the friend-pushing incident.  Matthew immediately (as if he'd been thinking about it) said that he'd been so frustrated that he just couldn't  help it and he'd pushed him.  He went on to say that he wished he hadn't done it and that he loved his friend.  He was clearly experiencing regret and sorrow over what he'd done, as well as good intentions about wanting to be different.  I hugged him and told that as he got a bit older, it would get a little easier for his brain to manage his hands, even in times of frustration, and told him that I loved him and was proud of him.  We continued to snuggle and read together.

A week or two later, when Matthew saw his friend, I found it fascinating that the first thing that came out of Matthew's mouth (unprompted by me) was an apology for having pushed him.  It was heart felt and genuine.

Well, I couldn't imagine a better outcome than that, quite honestly.  The incident clearly hadn't left Matthew's mind, but he was afforded opportunity to process things and to feel things in his heart.  He felt the sorrow of it, he heard me express my belief in his good intentions, and he left unscathed by shame.  I couldn't help but think:  Another hundred or a thousand of those incidents and he would himself mature into being able to apologize, and without any forced compliance or feelings of shame.

That experience left a profound impact on me and on my thoughts about parenting these kinds of issues.

I have done similar things countless times since, for all three kids - whether apologizing to kids outside of our family or apologizing to one of my own kids for another of them.  Like I said, sometimes the old parent in me takes over and I end up making my kid apologize, but it's usually when I'm angry about what happened and my buttons get pushed - because sometimes I'm thinking seriously - can you not just learn not to do that?? or some other such frustrated thought.  :)

My hope, in not forcing my kids to apologize, is that I'm modelling for them the way I hope someday they might be able to issue a heart-felt apology.  When they're frustrated/hungry/tired and their brain is not managing their body well, or if they simply are unable to experience mixed feelings yet, I think it's pretty much impossible for them to offer a genuine apology.  Just like it would be for me.  And the funny thing is that they'll sometimes now do it themselves to the offended person, after they've had some time to process what happened, and they'll even occasionally use almost the exact same words that I might!

We're often in such a rush to resolve everything on-the-spot that I think we miss opportunities as parents for situations to simply rest within our children's hearts and our own.  And when I say 'rest' I really do mean 'rest' - to me that means no lecturing, no questions, no grand talks, no life lessons preached.  It means time to reflect without influence.

I know that if, when one of my kids does something that is really not lovely behaviour, if I can just get through that moment without damaging the relationship between the child and me (by avoiding the whole yelling/reprimanding thing), and comfort both offender and offended, then an hour or day later, we all have heads that are so much clearer and hearts that are so much softer to work with than in a moment of extreme frustration.  I'm coming to see that I can always come back to an issue that needs working through, but that I'm way better off doing this after things have cooled down and my child has had time to process and feel.  I'm just better off loving that offending kid in the moment and saying little, or nothing at all.  Really, what's the hurry all about??

Believing in my kids' good intentions and letting them know that I am sure that this is going to get better/easier over time is so relaxing for their young brains and it just builds on their attachment to me as their parent.

Isn't that what we ultimately want?  To give our kids the inner space to do their own maturing and to continue to work on the depth of our children's attachment to us??


  1. Thank you for sharing, Ruth! Although I am not a parent, I work with children and truly believe in a developmental/biological perspective (with biology referring to innate traits and drives rather than the process of development). I find this very hard to maintain, however, because of the societal expectations we have about how children should be raised and my own lack of alternative models (having been raised in a very behaviouristic home) so I am often at a loss of how to respond during challenging situations. It is helpful to get some real-world examples from you!

    I find that there is an expectation that we can mould both children's behaviour and development but, it makes so much sense to me that things such as learning that truth is important and keeping our hands to ourselves are just as developmental as walking and talking. We can prop a child up to "walk" all the live-long day, but it's not our "teaching" that results in walking, it is developmental maturation. We want to feel that we have power over these things, but we don't!

    What do your own parents think about your parenting philosophy?

  2. Thanks Melissa...and what a fabulous comparison about walking/talking to other developmental milestones!! Thanks for that further insight.

    I hesitate to speak too much for my parents, but certainly they raised me in a very strong behaviouralistic manner, like their own parents would have raised them and as their peers would have raised their children (and like parents still do today). I would say that my childhood home was quite a tightly controlled household.

    I just had a conversation this morning with my Mom, who has read my last two posts. Although my parenting style is familiar to her because she sees us in action all of the time, she probably doesn't know as much about the ideas that support it. One of her comments this morning was that a developmental approach actually made quite a lot of sense to her, but that she wouldn't have known how to implement it given that her comfort zone would certainly also have been within the behavioural context. No surprise there.
    She also wondered out loud how my kids will fare in the 'real world' - by which she means the world they will enter as adults in a decade+. My response was that we would not be trying to implement this approach if we did we not firmly believe (or at least hope!) that it will result in kids who are not only well adapted to their world but also soft-hearted and able to contribute meaningfully in the context of their adult relationships.

    My Mom also said that she can see how this has been huge for my kids...perhaps especially for Seth. She has seen first hand how he has changed, particularly (but not exclusively) in the past few months. She also knows how sensitive/fragile a child Matthew is, by nature, and how a gentler developmental approach has been so affirming of him.

    I dare say that my Mom might be proud of me for being willing to do something different than the cultural norm (even if she doesn't fully understand it), and for being willing to do anything I possibly could to aid in my kids' development.

    THanks Melissa!


  3. Ah, apologies. This one hits close to home. We are very close with our neighbours and their children. Sharing a yard together means there is plenty of opportunity for conflict. Not all the conflict is between the kids! When something goes wrong, our friends really push their kids to say sorry... which the kids usually do, though often without feeling. The sense is that they do it to get their parents off their backs so they can get back to playing! We take more of the Ruth approach, encouraging some conversation and showing of care, and modelling it ourselves by apologizing to the child in question. We do it because this feels right to us, and at the end of the day we're trying to encourage empathy and ways to restore friendship. As a child, I felt that having to say sorry was incredibly humiliating and just plain unthinkable. It wasn't because I was bad or couldn't empathize, in fact, I think it was just the opposite. So I'm not up to forcing my kids in that direction. I can see real empathy starting to develop, particularly between my boys, where they will genuinely apologize to each other if they hurt the other by accident or on purpose. They actually hug and kiss and make sweet baby voices to each other. It's beautiful when it flows naturally. All this said, I love my neighbours and totally respect them as parents. They are trying to be the best parents possible and are very thoughtful about it, too. I totally trust them. Where the awkwardness comes is when set of parents is really pushing an apology and the other isn't. After some conversation, the neighbours aren't forcing apologies to our kids, I think because it doesn't seem fair to for their kids to apologize when ours aren't. Anyways, sorry for such a long comment. I mostly just really want to affirm the approach you're taking and say thanks for helping me better understand what I'm doing and why!

  4. You're giving me lots to think about... Thanks! A

  5. Thanks for sharing another real-life situation,'s tough to figure these things out. I've seen your boys show care towards each other and I think it's lovely! It's so awesome seeing it come from the inside.

    ANyway, thanks, and to you, too, Andrea, for the comments.