By Emuna Braverman
Dear Mom with a View,
I've read some of your articles on marriage and I accept that it's important to acknowledge when you're wrong and (gulp -- Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal to the contrary) say you're sorry. But what about as a parent? Aren't we supposed to be the all-knowing ones? Doesn't it violate our role as the voice of authority in the home if we acknowledge our mistakes, if we apologize to our children?
In Control but Just Barely
Dear In Control but Just Barely,
I have a secret to share with you. Not only should you apologize to your children if you're wrong, you must. And not only will your apology not weaken your authority over your children (if you are lucky enough to have any), it will strengthen it.
I don't know if there ever really was a world in which "a parent's word was law" and where the line "Wait until your father gets home!" inspired fear and upright behavior in children, but one thing is for sure -- this isn't it.
As one of my teachers said, "There is very little power of authority in parenting today. All you have is your personal relationship."
I would add one other thing: And your example. Our children learn to be kind from watching us act kindly and not from a lecture on the importance of kindness. (Teachers also take note.) A stern, unbending authoritarian parent who doesn't own up to his flaws will create a stern, unbending authoritarian child who doesn't own up to his flaws. And if you don't have any flaws, how can you ever grow and change?
The ability to say "I'm sorry" is a special gift we give to our children.
I think the ability to say "I'm sorry" is a special gift we give to our children. It's a humbler view of ourselves and a powerful tool for cementing and deepening relationships. Sometimes even if we weren't really at fault. Even if it seems trivial. It's always appreciated and the relationship is always improved. (Although an excessive need to say "I'm sorry" may suggest the need for some serious character development!)
Our children are watching us constantly (it's a little intimidating) for clues on how to behave. We have to demonstrate compassion and humility. They need to know that we are real human beings with strengths and weaknesses (not every detail of every weakness needs to be revealed!) who struggle every day to conquer our yetzer hara, our lower selves, to be a little better. If they don't see our struggle, they will be overwhelmed and devastated by their own. If we don't acknowledge our weaknesses, how can they?
The funny thing is that if we make a mistake, our children know (especially if it involves yelling at them!). It's not that they won't learn from our negative behavior. They just won't learn to apologize for it. By not saying "I'm sorry" we diminish both ourselves and them. Many of the stories of our patriarchs and leaders of the Jewish People throughout the Torah are stories of their mistakes. It is when they slipped up that the most learning can occur.
We can pretend to be perfect and teach our children to pretend as well, dooming them to a life of limited relationships and possibly high therapy bills.
Or we can accept our humanity and teach them about one of the greatest gifts the Almighty has given us -- the power to do teshuva. What is repentance if not saying to the Almighty "I'm sorry" (and I'll try not to do it again). It's the constant chance of a fresh start. Would we really want to rob our children of that precious opportunity?