I Apologize to My Kids When I'm Wrong So They Know Their Feelings Matter

Growing up, I rarely received apologies or had my feelings validated by the adults in my life. Historically, there have been many times society failed to offer Black people apologies. We're confronting that cycle in our household.

Worried Black mother holding hand comforting sad little daughter
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I grew up in the days of "what I say goes," where everybody on the block knew you by name and whose baby or grandbaby you were. Your parents would know if someone saw you misbehaving before you were even home. Back then, children were to be seen and not heard. And most importantly, what our parents said was law—there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Children's feelings aside, we were taught to respect our elders and never, ever question what they said because it was considered rude.

At the same time, I cannot think of a time I received an apology from a parent or grandparent that wasn't accompanied by a "but." You may know how it goes. It's either "I'm sorry but… you should've listened," "I'm sorry but… what I say goes," or the ever so classic "this is hurting me more than it hurts you." I rarely remember having my feelings validated or receiving apologies, even in instances when somebody clearly violated me emotionally. It's only now that I've begun to look back and question why I seldom received apologies or validation as I continue on my parenting journey. I also see how it connects to the lack of apology and validation that Black people experience in the larger world.

Historically, there have been many times society failed to offer Black people apologies. Our communities often receive very late, lukewarm apologies, if we receive them at all. Recent examples of this include an LA County commission that voted, without public apology, to give a Black family their land back after almost 100 years and the American Psychological Association releasing an apology for being "complicit in contributing to systemic inequities, and [having] hurt many through racism, racial discrimination, and denigration of people of color," in 2021. So it's not surprising that the trauma of how Black people are treated publicly trickles over into their home life and how they interact with their children. But I'm determined to be the change my children need.

I can remember how it felt not to have my feelings validated. It's important to me that I apologize to my children because they need to know that adults make mistakes too. I love the idea of showing them that apologies don't make you weak; they make you human. And that no one, at any time, should be allowed to make them feel "some type of way." I want them to understand they have the freedom to embrace their entire range of emotions and give them an outlet to express them safely.

So how can we learn to apologize to our kids? I have a few lessons from my parenting journey.

Recognize Their Feelings

Parenting has taught me children have big feelings, the same way we do as adults. In my experience, it is important to show my children that it's OK to have big feelings. Showing them that it's OK remains true even when the emotions they express are not necessarily what some adults deem "positive." I believe by giving my children the space to recognize their feelings, I also show my ability to provide them with grace. Apologizing and showing empathy gives my children the opportunity to learn even more skills. It has also helped them learn to recognize and name their feelings on their own without shame.

Acknowledge What You Did Wrong

It's also crucial that the apologies we give our children acknowledge what we did wrong. Acknowledging what we did wrong can be a challenge for those of us who did not have examples of adults accepting fault. Talk to your children in an age-appropriate way about your feelings, says Jennie Hudson, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of New South Wales. "You don't have to go into the details of why you reacted the way you did. But you can say something like: "I'm sorry I yelled. I got frustrated, but it's not your fault I lost my cool. Here's how I could have handled it better."

Explain, but Don't Make Excuses

Sometimes, I find myself blaming my children for my mistakes while explaining to them where I went wrong. So rather than "I'm sorry but you…" I lead with, "I'm sorry, and I..." Doing this helps me to reframe my thinking and show accountability for my actions rather than shifting blame. It also helps me make sure my children don't go through life without hearing their parents give an apology that didn't have excuses.

Change the Behavior

Researchers say it's important to apologize in relationships because it helps to re-establish trust. But that can't happen without changing your behavior. It's equally true for our children. Empty apologies are useless, whether to children or adults. There's a reason that "the best apology is changed behavior" is such a popular quote, even though its origins are unknown. What better way to show our children that it's never too late for growth? Perfection is unrealistic. But I've found my children appreciate that I am working on changing my behavior.

Say, "I'm Sorry"

I've found it's easy to offer gifts, take my babies to Chick-fil-A, or simply ask them if they're OK after a disagreement. However, our words have so much power. According to Exploring Your Mind, the importance of apologizing to children lies in teaching them to be more cooperative, respectful, and helping them know how to live with others. I think children need to hear the actual words "I'm sorry." That way, they know it's OK to own up to our mistakes. As I do this, I remember it's not enough to say the words—it's important to change my behavior, so it doesn't happen again.

There's no way to parent perfectly. We simply lead by example and model the behavior we hope to see from our children.

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