To children, we are always the people who have the answers. They look to us for guidance and acceptance and everything they become depends on what they see and learn from us. For this reason, it can sometimes feel like we need to always have it together and that in order for children to feel safe, we need to show strength in front of them and avoid vulnerability. However, as much as we do need to give children a safe and stable environment, we need to remember that we are only human and therefore, imperfect by nature.
Everybody has flaws and has times when they get things wrong. Mistakes are not the issue. It is how we deal with them that matters and if we want children to understand this, we need to lead by example. We are constantly reinforcing the importance of an apology when children get things wrong, but how often do we actually say “sorry” ourselves when we make a mistake?
As parents, practitioners and teachers, we don’t have all the answers and let’s face it, when we finally feel like we are in control, a new challenge or situation comes our way and the learning curve starts again. There are days when we are on form and get things right and there are others when we know we could have been a better version of ourselves. In these moments, it is important for us to own our mistakes and apologise to the tiny people that are watching our every move. Apologising will not lessen a child’s respect for us. If anything, it will do the opposite and make them feel safer with us, knowing that we tell the truth and own up to our mistakes.
It was only last week that my little boy (who is four years old) shouted at me and stamped his feet. I told him that I felt a little sad that he was doing that as I was only trying to help him. I then gave him space to calm down. Two minutes later, he came and patted me on the back and said, “Sorry Mummy, I didn’t mean to shout at you, I’m just having a bad day and feel a bit grumpy”. His words were my words. The week before I had apologised to him in the same way. Our own behaviour is never going to be perfect, but by owning that and apologising, we teach children the importance of this, and give them an opportunity to do the same. We cannot hold anyone to a higher standard than we can live up to ourselves. If we expect children to say “sorry” when they make a mistake, we too should be prepared to do the same.
Here are 5 steps to apologising to a child:
Give an unconditional apology
Focus on why we are sorry without making it the child’s fault. By saying “I am sorry for….. BUT you were…..” it devalues the apology. Always own your behaviour, rather than pointing the finger.
Own your feelings
We are always telling children that it is okay to be sad, angry or frustrated. However, it is not okay to take these feelings out on others. However, we are only human and sometimes make this mistake ourselves. When we do, it is important to own how we feel, explain this to children and then follow it up with something like “But even though I felt... it was not okay for me to…”
Explain your behaviour
It is important to explain our behaviour so that children can gain a deeper understanding. For us, it is often obvious why we did what we did, but children are not always developmentally-equipped with the ability to join the dots. By explaining our behaviour to them, we help them to gain an understanding of the bigger picture:
- I was late because I didn’t expect there to be so much traffic
- I shouted because I am having a bad day and feel a bit grumpy
- I wasn’t listening because I was distracted by…….
- I was frustrated because I felt that I wasn’t being listened to
Always use sentences that start with “I” so that you are owning your apology. The minute we start saying “You did this” or “You did that”… we start pointing the finger and that is not what an apology is about.
Change your behaviour
Make sure that you amend your behaviour after that. There is nothing worse than someone who apologises but keeps doing the same thing. Children need to see that an apology results in a change of actions.
Give them space
This can be hard, but we need to understand that children, like us, have feelings and even though we have apologised, they might still feel upset with us. Explain that you understand this, that you will give them space and that you are there for them when they are ready. It’s not always easy to do this part but it is necessary. An apology doesn’t always magically fix the problem. As adults we understand this, and it is important to acknowledge that children are no different. They too sometimes need space and to come around in their own time.
Children model what they see. They are never going to be perfect because no human being ever is. If we want them to learn the art of taking responsibility and giving sincere apologies, we need to model this when we inevitably get things wrong ourselves. It doesn’t make us weak in their eyes, it makes us real and gives them permission to not only make mistakes and learn, but to own them and become a better version of themselves as a result of them.
About the author
Stacey Kelly is a former teacher, a parent to 2 beautiful babies and the founder of Early Years Story Box, which is a subscription website providing children’s storybooks and early years resources. She is passionate about building children’s imagination, creativity and self-belief and about creating awareness of the impact that the Early Years have on a child’s future. Stacey loves her role as a writer, illustrator and public speaker and believes in the power of personal development. She is also on a mission to empower children to live a life full of happiness and fulfilment, which is why she launched the #ThankYouOaky Gratitude Movement.
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