My children are 8 and 10, and sibling squabbles are commonplace around here. Arguments are usually based on the territorial instincts of the North American pre-teen (get out of my room, don’t touch my stuff) and on their desire to assert their position as Alpha Child (I call the: TV, computer, last brownie…).
That’s why it is such a delight for me to hear the words “I’m sorry” coming from my kids’ mouths, especially with no intervention or threats from me.
I almost fell off my mom perch when I heard my son tell my daughter, “I’m sorry you lost your necklace, I know it was special to you.” I was equally pleased to hear her tell him, “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I was frustrated.”
The latter example comes directly from my repeated efforts to model for them how to admit when you are wrong, and the power of an apology. Sometimes I return to things days later, for example, “a few nights ago I overreacted when I told you…[insert ridiculous and unenforceable parenting threat], and I’m sorry about that. I think it would be more reasonable if [realistic consequence] was your punishment instead.”
The point is, I want them to know that if something is gnawing at you, and you feel bad about it, it is never too late to try to make it right. It can mean a lot to the person you are apologizing to, and can be incredibly freeing for the person making the apology.
A few months ago I spoke about navigating relationships with friends who have special needs children (Unique Voices), and I talked about being sorry for all the times I’ve gotten it wrong. I got to follow up with my friend Brad Mook, who is the parent of a child with special needs. I asked him specifically, “what should I do when I know I’ve put my foot in my mouth? How can I make it right when I know my words or actions have hurt someone?”
His advice was simple: “Sorry goes a long way.” Then he shared the story of a nurse who once looked at his daughter Ellie (who was born with a rare chromosomal abnormality) and said, “She’s not that odd.” It was hurtful to the core. Being the awesome people that they are, the Mook family has turned her comment into an inside joke, with mom Colleen sometimes joking with Ellie, “you’re not that odd…” (See Colleen’s Open Letter to Ellie).
Brad’s point was, if that nurse had returned later in the day and said, “I’m so sorry for making that insensitive remark. I don’t know what I was thinking!”, she would have a whole different place in their memory. She would be the nurse who mis-spoke, but then learned from her mistake.
In fact, that’s just what happened with another friend of Brad’s, who offhandedly used the term “retarded” in a Facebook post. After he expressed how hurtful that word can be, the person apologized profusely, learned, grew, and they both moved on. This illustrates another important point: it’s sometimes just as important to accept sincere apologies as it is to give them.
Saying I’m sorry can be an important first step in starting a dialogue of healing and growth. Here is an amazing example of the power those words can hold:
This photo captured the moment a man participating in a Gay Pride parade hugged a member of a Christian group that had come to the parade carrying signs that apologized for the way the church has treated homosexuals:
Now that’s an apology!! As for me, I’ve never held up a sign in public, but I have apologized on email, in person, on the phone, and via snail mail. I’ve apologized immediately, and years after the fact. No matter how I do it, it always makes me feel better. I don’t expect to be forgiven instantly, or even at all. But I do expect myself to do better, and saying I’m Sorry is my promise that I’m working on it.