Growing up, our parents are constantly telling us what we are doing wrong and what we should be doing instead. We learn what is right and wrong from them and the other adults in our lives – namely our teachers. So naturally, we expect them to consistently do the right thing.
Unfortunately, our parents and teachers are human. And so they mess up. They overreact (most likely because having children is highly stressful) when we stay out 5 minutes past our curfew or when we are fighting with a sibling and ground us for two weeks. We have all been the kid in a similar scenario.
The same thing happens with teachers, who, sick of all the noise in the classroom, end up reprimanding the kid who normally starts the shenanigans, but who, this time, actually didn’t. In high school, I was running late to school one day. A friend of mine from French class had spent the night (her parents were out of town – sleepovers on school nights was not the norm), so we went to school together. A typically early student, I was actually the one who made us late for school that day. Knowing that we were late and feeling uncomfortable, as soon as I parked the car, I started hightailing it to French class, which happened to be our first class of the day. But my friend was more relaxed and was walking slower.
Class had already started. I was stressed from being late, but did not want to leave her behind. When we arrived to class, I walked in maybe 5 seconds before she did. Our teacher said absolutely nothing to me, but as soon as my classmate walked in, she went on a rant for about 5 minutes about how disrespectful that was (and aimed the rant entirely at my friend).
This was clearly a mistake. One I believe we can all imagine making ourselves. So the real mistake was not later apologizing to that student.
Without an apology, what is the lesson learned? That my French teacher is unfair and hates my friend. That my friend is probably not going to do well in that class anyway, so why should she try?
With an apology, what is the lesson learned? That my French teacher is human and made a mistake. That she is sorry. That even adults make mistakes. That we all need to take responsibility for our actions. In this scenario, life remains “fair” and rational. Whereas in the other scenario, life is unfair and not rational because it does not make any sense to yell at my friend and not me.
So that is the problem: if adults do not apologize when they make a mistake, kids learn that the world is not rational and that it does not make sense, so why try to make sense of it? That’s stressful and can be demotivating in the classroom. So kids learn that sometimes it may be better to disengage. But disengagement is the opposite of the internal motivation we are trying to promote!
And yet, so often adults do not apologize, perhaps from a fear that they will lose their authority and power. However, that is not the case if you use authoritative parenting style. Authoritative parenting is the recommended parenting style (compared to authoritarian or permissive parenting), whereby parents have reasonable (yet still high) expectations for their children, set rational boundaries that they communicate to their children, and then support their children as they make mistakes (Ginsburg, 2015).
If you apologize to your child, kids often respect you more because you make sense – they can understand getting carried away and doing the wrong thing in the moment. Apologizing for doing that means you are rational, which means life is rational, which means kids know what to expect from you, so they can plan and work hard and life will reward them in a way they can anticipate and look forward to. (I cannot say enough good things about setting clear expectations and boundaries!) So if that is what you want for your child, think about apologizing next time you make a mistake.
Belden, S & S. Flight. (2015). Establishing boundaries. Fireborn Institute: YouTube.com
Ginsburg, K. (2015). Building resilience: Preparing children and adolescents to THRIVE. Learning and the Brain Conference: Boston.
Hayes, C. (2015). The importance of teaching children empathy. Banyan Tree Counseling.