Learning to apologize

A couple of weeks ago I put a bug in the ear of a wonderful younger couple, suggesting that a word of encouragement from them to Zack might go much farther than a pep talk (he’d call it a lecture) from me. Ya’ think? We’d like to see Zack take on some greater challenges in school, but he was very upset when we broached the topic with him recently. We thought he could probably hear a message more easily from someone closer to his age than to mine.

Our friends asked how we handle the kids not wanting to do what we ask – purely hypothetical, of course – and what we think about discipline. Well…

When the kids were little we learned to spell out clearly our expectations, the consequences for ignoring or violating them, and the number of reminders or warnings we would give before the proverbial shoe dropped. With this in place ahead of time, we were much better prepared when a situation started to unravel. We still are. We can move through the steps calmly, knowing at each point where we are in the process instead of finding ourselves “caught by surprise” and reacting out of frustration or anger. Even when it is necessary to punish the kids (ie., deliver consequences we’ve already talked about), we usually can do it as a simple next step instead of as a big escalation.

Punishing our kids when they were younger most often meant a time out. When it was over, I would sit beside them on the stairs and we’d have a little chat about what happened, what choices we made, and what we could do differently next time. This was where we taught the kids the art of offering and accepting apologies. Eye contact is required, the apology has to be specific, and apologies need to be acknowledged and hopefully received. We all still use the same simple language: “I’m sorry, Daddy. Sorry that I threw all of your shoes down the stairs.” Reply: “Zack, I accept your apology and I forgive you.”

Susan and I are also subject to these rules, as we think the kids should see that we’re willing to do what we require of them. So if one of us needs to apologize for anything we contributed, it works the same way. “Lauren, I’m sorry I laughed when you told me about basketball practice tonight.” “I accept your apology, Dad, and I forgive you.”

One of the goals is to help the kids get into the habit of working through whatever it is that falls apart. We address hurt feelings. We try not to leave unresolved anger or resentment or bitterness, if possible. We follow our simple and [now] familiar steps. With the onset of adolescence and its occasional hormonal storms, we have added a “cooling off” period to the menu of choices. The kids can take a break from immediate conflict and let their emotions settle before coming back to the apology/forgiveness matrix. We also hope it says that Ma and Pa respect their emotional makeup and their privacy, and trust that they will do what they need to.

I always try to conclude disciplinary actions by laughing about something together.  (This is a little harder now that the kids are older and cooler and I’m a little more of an idiot). Laughter can be the final step in completing a cycle that brings us back into a restored relationship with each other. It leaves all of us with a sense of closure, reconnection, and relief. More importantly, like a piece of Garrison Keillor’s Bebopareebop Rhubarb Pie, it gets the taste of shame and humiliation out of our mouths because we know we have taken care of business with our dignity, lovability, and humor all more or less intact.


One response to “Learning to apologize

  1. You all are our models and our heroes in the art of recovery after a breakdown or meltdown in communication. We often refer to the “I accept your apology and forgive you” model we’ve seen in action with the fabulous Lanes. Thank you muchly for this!

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