The four of us were playing team backgammon—my husband and ten-year-old son versus my thirteen-year-old daughter and me. It had been a long day at work, and there was a huge pile of dishes in the sink. My husband and son were winning and I, typically the least competitive of the four of us, was becoming annoyed. As my son shook out his dice, his hand knocked one over: “Double fives!” He did a fist pump in the air. Almost without thinking, I said: “Wait. Your hand touched the dice. It’s a do-over.” Ben looked at me, shocked. “But it was an accident!” I insisted. Things went on, badly. Ben quit the game and ran upstairs.

When I went up to his room, he burst out: “It was an accident! I didn’t know I would have doubles!” I said the only thing there was to say. “You’re right.”

His whole body went slack. He leaned into my arms; his sticky, skinny ten-year-old boy arms wound around my waist. “I’m sorry I made a big deal about the dice. You’re right, it was an accident. I was in a cranky mood tonight and I made a poor choice. I’m sorry, and I’ll do better next time.”

What is a True Apology?
I think apologies are important. But not the kind of apologies that we, as parents, are often tempted to use. The “I’m sorry…but” apologies: “I’m sorry, but it’s time for nap” or “I’m sorry that you threw the train at Thomas, now you have to take a break.” These apologies are not real. They are limit softeners–our parental code for, “Something really crappy is coming up now…I hope you don’t freak out.”

True apologies are important, even with babies and toddlers. Think of all the times that toddlers hear adults tell them, “You hit your brother/took your friend’s stuffed animal/dropped Mommy’s wedding ring down the drain (yes, this happened). NOW SAY YOU’RE SORRY.” How do we know how to say we’re sorry? How do we know how to forgive? We learn by experiencing it.

A true apology is one that clearly states what the adult did wrong in simple terms that a child can understand, like “I yelled at you and I shouldn’t; I’m sorry for that.” (And no excuses—for example, this is not a true apology: “I’m sorry for yelling, but your tantrum got me really upset.”)

What Do True Apologies Teach Young Children
True apologies between adults and children do three important things: First, they show children how to recognize the difference between right and wrong (this is called a conscience, and comes in handy.)

Second, true apologies help adults build an authentic relationship with their children—one in which both people will sometimes make mistakes. Repairing mistakes (apologizing) can and often does take a relationship to a new level.

Finally, offering a true apology teaches children—even toddlers—how to take responsibility for their actions and how to forgive. There is power, love, and generosity in forgiveness. It is a big deal.

The Importance of Repair
Every parent has a Backgammon Breaking Point—when you say something you don’t mean or aren’t proud of. But here’s the secret: While these moments are important—and they are—the way you repair your misstep is even more important. When my son was hugging me after the “double fives incident”, I kissed his head and whispered into his ear, “I’m so glad we have the kind of relationship where we can talk to each other like this.” He squeezed me tighter and said, “I love you so much, Mom.” I’ve learned that a true apology—when you take responsibility for your mistake, pledge to do better, and ask for forgiveness—is a thread that pulls you closer and can mend most every tear.

I’m not sorry that there are no more cookies in the pantry. And I’m not sorry that you binged on television in the morning and now have no media time left. I’m not sorry it’s time for you to go to bed. And I’m really not sorry that the loud, annoying toy grandpa bought you ran out of batteries (actually, I took the batteries out, and I’m not sorry for that either).

Make no mistake: I do know what I am sorry about, and it’s the important stuff. It’s the stuff that really matters when it comes to building the bond I share with my children. I believe it’s a true apology that can strengthen that bond—even when it’s me who’s sometimes the weakest link.

About Rebecca Parlakian

Rebecca Parlakian is Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE and develops resources including apps, curricula, Web-based materials, DVDs, and more, for parents and early childhood professionals. Rebecca holds a Master’s degree in Education and Human Development, with a concentration in infant-toddler special education, from the George Washington University, where she currently serves as adjunct faculty. Her daughter (13) and son (10) help her remember that parenting can be hard, but also lots of fun, and -- most importantly – that the most well-planned, research-based parenting approach almost never works on your own children.

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