I can remember “cleaning” the bathroom when I was 3 or so, by scrubbing every surface with my mother’s toothbrush and a mixture of shampoo, toothpaste, and soap. I wasn’t really trying to clean anything. I was just entertaining myself. My father brought me to my distraught mother and said, “You need to say you’re sorry.” The closest he could get out of me was, “I didn’t mean it.” When I was little, there were two words I just could not bring myself to say: “I’m sorry.” It was sorta cute then, a toddler with too much pride to say “I’m sorry.” My parents were also very strict about respect; so it was a sore point too.
Now, twenty some odd years later, I have a son and I’m trying to teach him. My wife and I teach our son in many ways. We teach by telling him what to do. We teach by letting him find out for himself. We use rewards. We use punishments. We use psychology. But as far as I can tell, he learns the most by what I refer to as osmosis. He learns by what he absorbs from the people around him. I want him to learn to take responsibility for himself and what he does. I want him to value other people and the relationships in his life. I want him to be humble. I can talk to him about these things all I want, but unless I model the behavior for him he won’t really internalize it. Now, I’m aware that there is a school of thought that says parents (and other authority figures) should never apologize- it is a sign of weakness and lessens authority. I’m going to disagree with that. Authority does not require infallibility. As far as I can tell, unless one is Jesus, claiming to be infallible simply makes one out to be a liar, which tends to weaken any claim to authority. Instead, I try to show him that taking responsibility for one’s actions and apologizing is a sign strength and character.
Let me give an example: One day I came home and Felipe’s shoes were on the steps for me to trip over and his coat and book bag in the middle of the floor. I had a rough day and we had been telling him every day to put his things away as soon as he came home. I just blew up- I yelled for him to get himself over here to pick up his mess, and why didn’t you do it right when you came home, and why are you being so irresponsible and lazy, and when you’re done picking it up go to your room- yelling angrily the whole time. (I’m sure that no other parents out there have ever done this sort of thing.) After I calmed down, I recognized that I had blown an incident out of proportion and taken my frustrations out on him. So I went upstairs to talk to him. I told him that I was wrong to have spoken to him the way I did. That I was perfectly right to make him clean up his things and to reprimand him, but the way in which I did so was wrong. I did not back down from my responsibility as a parent to discipline him, but I also took responsibility for my mistake. In doing so I showed him how to own his misdeeds, that I valued and respected him, and that doing right is more important that being right.
My wife is sometimes annoyed by apologies. As someone who grew up in another country, she has the benefit of being able to observe the culture she is now a part of with some detachment. Her reasoning is apologies are often nothing more than words. So often we say “sorry” without thinking, automatically. And so often we see the apology as the end. “You think ‘sorry’ fixes everything!” she says after I mumble “sorry” after stepping on her foot for the ump-teenth time as we are trying to make breakfast and pack lunches in our small kitchen. And she’s right (don’t tell her I said that); Apologies can be meaningless, rote things that we do out of habit or to try and get the other person to let an offense slip by. Our apologies can be unsupported by any actions. But an apology is supposed to be part of something bigger than just words and perhaps flowers (or jewelry if you really screwed up). It is a reminder that we are fallible. It serves to keep us humble. Most importantly it is supposed to be the beginning of reconciliation. If we truly wish to have healing in a relationship, we must be willing to take responsibility for our misdeeds. Once responsibility is taken and forgiveness is given, reconciliation (healing of the relationship) can occur.
I value my relationship with my children and I want them to value their relationships with other people and to take responsibility for their actions and the consequences of their actions. The only way I will influence them to do that is if I do it for them.