Updated: May 8, 2021
I think being intentional about our wording with children is one of the most underutilized strategies for connection, respect, and teaching. I think about the words my husband and I use, and the language I hear around town a lot. Today I’m thinking about the phrase, “I’m sorry”.
I had a hard moment with my 19-month-old. I needed some time to finish eating and clear the table, so I put him in his room and locked the baby gate. He was furious. He was screaming and thrashing and upset. I would guess from the sounds and gestures coming from his body he was cursing-me-out with little toddler curse words he was making up right on the spot. I tried to empathize and offer love and support from afar. “You don’t like this. You really want to get out.” As you can imagine, it did not work. He went even further into his fit and became so upset he was choking on all the fluids being secreted from his body. At that point, I went in to offer some help. I was holding him and said, “I’m so sorry my baby. I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time.”
Saying “sorry” implies we have done something wrong.
We hear it all the time, we do it all the time, but is saying “sorry” necessary? I would argue no, in fact, it can be confusing and send the wrong message. If you use my story as an example, what I said could easily be translated to: “She should have never left me here, that was the wrong choice. She feels bad for me. She sees me as weak and helpless. I knew there was a good reason for me to freak out.”
“I’m sorry” implies we have done something wrong; it is an admission of guilt. Think about all the times we say this to our children. “I’m sorry, but you cannot have that toy.” “I’m sorry, but I won’t let you hit.” “I’m sorry you wanted to keep playing, but I have to take you up for a bath.” “I’m sorry this isn’t the lunch you want.”
Why are we apologizing for being great parents? Why should we be sorry for attuning to the needs of our children then following through to meet their needs? There is nothing wrong with setting our children up for success by providing firm and appropriate boundaries.
Let’s take it a step further and look at the ways we say sorry to children about emotional topics. “I’m sorry you’re sad.” “When she took the toy that made you angry, I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry you feel scared and upset when I drop you off at school.”
Again I ask, why? Why are we sorry about our child’s feelings? Even if you are the cause of the difficult feeling, “I won’t let you have a cookie, now you’re sad.” There is no need to be apologetic for that. Like I said, “I’m sorry” implies guilt or a wrong that needs to be corrected. When you say, “I’m sorry it made you sad.” You’re sending a message, “I made a mistake, and I am responsible for the hard feeling.”
Our children are liberated from feeling like their feelings are our fault when we stop apologizing. It frees them to take responsibility for their own feelings. It also frees them from feeling responsible for our feelings when we stop saying “sorry”. This is because it can send a message, "Mom is feeling guilty and sad about how I'm reacting. I guess my reaction and feelings are wrong and hurt her."
Let’s liberate ourselves from this implied guilt, shame, and responsibility. When we stop saying “sorry” we also liberate our children to feel their feelings with no strings attached. The child is freed because they can be sad, angry, upset and it won’t make parents feel guilty. It’s very scary and difficult for a child to feel responsible for their parent's emotions.
What should we be saying instead?
We can say the same stuff, just without the “sorry”. “I put the toy away, now you’re angry.” “You wanted to keep playing, we are headed up to take a bath now.” “You wanted the green cup and you have the purple one.” “I see you’re feeling sad.” “It sounds like you’re angry.” Speaking this way sends a clear and accurate message. “I have done nothing wrong and your emotions are totally okay by me.”
We should definitely apologize when we make mistakes.
I’m a little ashamed to write this paragraph. Please tell me I’m not the only one with these mistakes to apologize for.
“I pulled your arm too hard when getting you in the car, I’m sorry about that. It’s not okay for me to pull you hard.” “I yelled at you when you kicked your brother. I’m sorry, I should not be yelling at you. Next time I will try my best to stay calm.” “I left you alone and acted annoyed when you were upset before. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t leave you alone when you have big feelings. You are not annoying, and you are not alone. Next time, I will do my best to stay with you when you are going through something hard. If I need a break, I will step away for a few moments, but I will come back as soon as I’m calm.”
Being intentional about our word choices, especially the use of “I’m sorry” can liberate us and our children. It will help us stop being too wrapped up in our child’s emotional experience and them from being too wrapped up in ours. Let’s stop saying “I’m sorry” unless we really have something to apologize for.