Aubrey Hirsch’s Loco Parentis columns for The Butter can be found here.
I was talking on the phone with my friend the other day, telling her about a particularly tough day home with my son. Everyone in our house was sick and I’m super-pregnant and as much as I wish I could be an endless fountain of patience…I am decidedly not. Trying to cut to the chase about how the day had gone, I said, “Let’s just say I had to apologize to him A LOT.”
After a second to process that, she said, “You apologize to him?”
In fairness, her question makes a lot of sense. My son is only two and probably didn’t understand my apology or feel offended by my minor infraction. Apologizing to him is just something I’ve always done, ever since he was an infant. But her question made me think more about why I do this. Why apologize to a kid who can barely understand me?
I think it’s because I, myself, was a latecomer to the power of the apology. I come from a big Irish family in which hugs and laughter and sharing a drink most often stand in for the more direct “I’m sorry.” To be honest, I was never much good at saying it. I’m a clever fighter, a skilled debater. I’m self-aware and good at getting my point across. I’ve always been really good at winning arguments, but not very good at losing them.
My husband taught me how to do that. I remember so clearly one of our early fights, when we were still dating. He’d done something that made me feel slighted and I confronted him about it. I was braced for a long argument: his stubborn defense, my hammering in of the point, his digging in, my tying this to some exaggerated “pattern” of behavior, his dredging up some past transgression on my part to make me feel terrible, and then just general escalation until we retreated into our separate corners for a night of chilly silence.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, I told him how I felt and he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel like that. How can we do this better next time?”
I was not prepared for that. Instead of spending hours fighting, we spent a little time figuring out what failure in communication had led to the problem and the rest of the night just hanging out, having fun. Wow, I thought, this is much better.
To be sure, we’re not always like this. We have a lot of stupid fights and protracted anger and we’re both guilty of trying to “win” instead of solving the problem. But the simple magic of “I’m sorry” has totally changed my life for the better.
When someone apologizes to me, I know that my feelings are being understood and respected. I feel like I’m being treated as an equal. I feel like they’re going to help me fix the bad feeling and prevent it in the future, rather than just tell me I’m wrong for feeling it. I feel heard, loved and grateful.
Those are all things I want my son to feel. I’m his mom, so I am always right about stuff like whether one should run into the street, or whether it’s necessary to wear pants when it’s five degrees outside, or whether or not that pork tenderloin on his plate is the only thing being offered for dinner.
But about other things, I am not always right. I sometimes yell at him instead of putting him in the timeout chair. I sometimes lose my patience when he’s goofing off instead of finishing lunch and I have somewhere to be in eight minutes. I sometimes do the wrong thing. I want to show him that it’s okay to apologize when you’ve done the wrong thing. I don’t want him to see stubbornness as a sign of power or authority. I want him to know that it’s okay to admit when you’re wrong. That it can be a respectful and loving choice.
As he gets older, I expect to be apologizing a lot more, for more nuanced offenses. I’m getting a lot of practice apologizing to my toddler, and I hope I can apologize just as freely to my kid, my pre-teen, my teenager, my adult son. I want to teach him, the way my husband taught me, that he can come to me when he’s feeling bad and I won’t make him feel worse. That I’ll work with him to solve the problem. That we’re on the same team.
And that, when I’m wrong, I’ll tell him I’m sorry. I hope that, in turn, I’m teaching him to do the same.